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Last month, Salvador Menez had the typical kind of trouble for any apartment or condo dweller: His neighbors kept playing loud music late into the night.
Menez may have felt like employing the standard tenant's tool for requesting silence: beating on the wall adjacent to the offending noisemakers. But in Menez's situation, that wouldn't have done any good -- not when the loud neighbor is five stories below, across the street and inside the bunkerlike Spy club pulsating with the pounding heavy bass of disco music.
"I've had to complain four or five times now, when it gets intolerable in the sense that I just have to go to sleep," Menez explains. "Usually I'll just get so tired I'd conk out and fall asleep. But if it keeps me awake, I'll have to call the police."
Such decibel-laden disputes are hardly new for Houston, where an absence of zoning and increasing Inner Loop gentrification has sometimes set homeowners against high-volume bars and music venues. What is unique in this clash is the location. The core of downtown has brought together a burgeoning residential base with an expanding entertainment district dotted with clubs that once had a sea of surrounding empty buildings to buffer their sounds.
Referees caught in the middle of this mixed-use friction are the patrolling cops.
"It can be difficult," explains Executive Assistant Chief Dennis Storemski. "We haven't been faced with this before, with the revitalization of downtown and the proliferation of apartments and lofts. We've got to deal with both communities now, and we try to be sympathetic and understanding to both."
If the decibel diplomacy doesn't work, Storemski adds, then officers will have no choice but to issue citations to offending clubs.
Although workers are gutting and converting ever more central city buildings to residential units, noise critics like Menez are at least temporarily in the distinct minority.
"If you're looking for the kind of peace and quiet that comes with rolling up the sidewalks at sundown, then go back to Kingwood," one City Hall staffer privately muttered when asked about the disputes. "Anybody who moves downtown should expect to have noise -- that's part of the energy."
Jodie Sinclair, a spokeswoman for the Downtown Management District, says there were some complaints in the earlier years of redevelopment, primarily from new residents confronted with the night concerts at Jones Plaza. "They had some real issues with it," she recalls. "Some of them said the noise was enough to lift you right out of your socks."
Sinclair herself had to make some adjustments when she moved into the 2016 Main condos at the south end of downtown. The steady roar of traffic along the adjacent Pierce Elevated tormented her until another downtown resident clued her in on one secret: thick acrylic noise barriers that can easily be attached to windows.
The management district believes that "as the residential increases, as downtown becomes 24/7 to a greater extent, and the character changes from being strictly a business environment, there will be competing interests," Sinclair says. "Downtown is a very revitalized place. You're going to have to take some extra measures privately in order to help insulate yourself -- and I mean that literally."
Menez says he's already tried everything available to shield himself from the sounds of some clubs, including principal antagonist Spy. The Medical Center information technology worker bought his fifth-floor unit at the Bayou Lofts at Market Square in September 2000 and moved in last year. He installed heavy drapes and had the double-paned windows replaced with triple-paned models, which muffled most of the regular street noises by 90 percent, he says.
Many residents on the west side of the building complain about the club noise, but most of the others wanted to silence any public criticism for fear of hurting their property values, Menez says. "No matter what, property values are going to be affected," he believes. "If they don't act, that's just exactly what is going to happen."
Menez researched the applicable ordinances and finally acquired his own enforcement tool: a decibel meter. When police responded to one of his complaints, he invited them up to listen for themselves and feel the thumping bass vibrations.
His worst night of misery came on May 25, when the meter notched readings of up to 85 decibels, nearly 20 higher than permitted by the city even in nonresidential areas. Menez says an officer showed up about 11:30 p.m. at the club, but merely left after conferring with an HPD sergeant who was working as a security guard. The noise continued 20 minutes more without a ticket being issued. Menez called police again, and he says the scene between the sergeant and officer was repeated without citations.
"These violations occur each night from Wednesday through Sunday and this has been going on for years!" he wrote to city officials. Menez says it's obvious what happened: No patrol cop is going to ticket a club where a ranking officer works an extra job.
Executive Assistant Chief Storemski says police are reviewing Menez's complaint, but he insists that officers are going to "hold proprietors to the specifics of the law" regardless of who might be working security there.