Stop! Hey! What's That Sound?
Proposed noise ordinance threatens downtown clubs.
By Jordan Smith, Fri., April 26, 2002
If the City Council approves the proposed revisions to the city's noise ordinance this spring, say opponents, Austin may have to consider changing its beloved moniker from "Live Music Capital of the World" to something more appropriate -- perhaps, "High-Priced Loft Capital of the World."
Indeed, the proposed revisions -- drafted by city staff and the APD at the behest of the council (and available online at www.city ofaustin.org/police) -- would force music venues, specifically outdoor venues like Stubb's on Red River, to (1) obtain a city permit to hold outside shows; (2) limit sound leaving the property to 75 decibels; and (3) end shows at 10pm during the week and 11pm on weekends. Venue operators would be allowed to apply for "late night extension" permits for shows that continue until 2am -- but only at sound levels not higher than 70 decibels. Even within that limitation, a venue would only be allowed seven late-night permits in a single year. According to APD Cmdr. Harold Piatt -- who oversees the department's downtown area command -- 80 decibels is roughly equivalent to the noise a jet plane makes passing over police department headquarters at Seventh and I-35; 70 decibels is approximately the noise of rush-hour traffic on Sixth Street.
"Basically, this would put Stubb's out of business," said club co-owner Charles Attal, "Not even maybe -- this is a definite." Attal said Stubb's has always operated under a "sort of self-imposed" 11pm curfew, but at 70 decibels (half the volume of 80, since decibel ratings are logarithmic, not arithmetical), "there's not a band in the city who would want to play under these conditions," he said. "And forget about any of the higher-profile road shows."
And in theory, at least, forget about other outdoor venues like Waterloo Park and Auditorium Shores -- often sites for money-generating benefit shows -- and forget about SXSW's outdoor showcases, he said. "These kinds of events generate millions and millions of dollars for the city," he said. "But [if the new ordinance passes] there will be no more outdoor shows."
Ash Corea, owner of the Empanada Parlour -- who has been engaged in some high-profile legal wrangling with the Sheraton Hotel over noise levels coming from the Parlour's outdoor stage along the businesses' shared property line -- shares Attal's concerns. "If this goes through you might as well kiss live music outside goodbye," Corea said. In her case, the Sheraton has repeatedly complained that guests can't sleep with the sound from the Parlour's outdoor stage. But, Corea points out, the Sheraton -- since taking over the hotel -- has done nothing to upgrade the building to meet current building codes; hence, she said, some of the noise problems they face are strictly of their own doing. "If you take a noise meter over there during the day, the noise reaches over 70 decibels in any room -- I know because I've done it," she said. "They have less insulation through their windows then we have in our door, and they have thousands of windows." At press time, Sheraton's general manager had not returned calls requesting comment.
Corea lays part of the blame for her situation -- as well as the other trouble the proposed draconian ordinance would cause -- flatly at the feet of former Mayor Kirk Watson and the Smart Growth-loving Council. "It was said to me by someone very much in the political milieu of Austin [that] apparently lots of developers have been complaining that they can't sell their downtown condos because of the noise," she said. "Why would anyone want a condo downtown if they're not into the music or restaurants or the entertainment business?" And people directly involved in those businesses, she said, have been firmly priced out of the downtown housing market. Indeed, most of the downtown lofts and condos have a largely prohibitive base price of around $180,000 for just 700 square feet of space, ranging to well over $1 million for larger units. New apartment and condo developments preparing to break ground this year promise more of the same -- indeed, as reported in Tuesday's American-Statesman, the new Austin City Lofts at 800 W. Fifth will start at a whopping $282,000. "The people who'd buy those condos are not around," the source said. "[Watson] screwed us. He sold out downtown Austin, and the City Council doesn't really have a plan for dealing with it. This Smart Growth is a bunch of hot air." Hot air that benefits the wealthy and corporate interests, she said, at the expense of the middle class and small-business owners. "What is happening, and what is sad, are these things are destroying, quintessentially, what makes Austin livable."
That is not the intent, said Council Member Will Wynn, who stresses that the new proposals, as drafted, are simply a starting point from which the city will iron out a final ordinance. He agrees that the conflict between the live music community and the Smart Growth-inspired residences was probably inevitable. "It seems like we've been on somewhat of a collision course," he said. "Now we've got to shake it out and figure out what we're going to do." Wynn said he firmly believes some revisions to the existing noise ordinance are necessary. "Clearly it isn't working," he said, "when you have private citizens suing each other over it."
Part of the problem, city officials contend, is that the current noise ordinance only allows APD officers to measure sound from the entrance to a club, and not from any random point on the property line. So, for example, the sound level leaving the front door of the Empanada Parlour would necessarily be lower than that near the outdoor stage on the property line shared by the Parlour and the Sheraton. "So you're not going to get an accurate reading," said APD's Piatt.
Wynn said he does agree that, if clubs are going to be held responsible for their sound output, so too other property and business owners should take into consideration the area in which they are building -- so that properties like the Sheraton and some of the other lofts which butt up against the entertainment district would ideally be built with noise in mind. "Building inspection is part of the city's role in this, and if we're going to ask club owners to do it, then we need to ask developers to put some acoustical thought into it [too]," he said. "I do lose a little empathy for folks who haven't challenged themselves on this."
Further, Wynn said he has already received correspondence from acoustical engineers who suggest that the proposed decibel levels would be unduly prohibitive. "And that's great, that's the kind of input we need in this process," he said. "Those numbers [in the proposals] probably are arbitrary, but it's a place to start." And that's why, he said, the process of getting community feedback is so important. "I've got to believe there is a way to do this that will impact the fewest people," he said. "This is a multifaceted ordinance that needs to be shaken out. We constantly revise our proposals -- but this one is a little more emotional than others we propose." He says he does not want to see clubs like Stubb's -- which he said he has championed as a great Red River-corridor revitalizer -- shut down in response to the ordinance.
But Stubb's Attal is not yet reassured. "If they want to pass this and say goodbye to Stubb's, then that's what they'll do -- and we can become a parking lot," he said. "They've tagged [the city] the 'Live Music Capital of the World' -- you'd hope they would help support that."
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