Facing the Music

Loft and condo dwellers are finding it difficult to coexist with the pounding beats coming out of clubs in Houston's revitalized downtown scene

He says in general that the goal of officers in any noise complaint call -- whether it's a backyard barbecue in Westbury or a wild Main Street bar -- is to get compliance and reduce the sound level. Depending on the circumstances, that often means issuing a stern warning, followed by a ticket if more complaints are received, Storemski says.

Spy manager Curtis Moore says many of Menez's complaints are unfounded, that his club pays careful attention to staying within the ordinance. Bars along Main Street can generate more noise, he says.

Moore says his club has been taking a cooperative approach with the new residential lofts, meeting with managers and tenant groups to try to minimize any problems. But some of the woes are hardly the work of Spy, he adds, saying that complaints have come in over such things as crowds conversing on the back deck of the club. Spy also can't be responsible for traffic noises or arguments in nearby parking lots, he notes.

Spy revs up for another night.
Deron Neblett
Spy revs up for another night.

Both sides can take some comfort that central Houston is hardly alone in this new urban battle for peace. Austin, long hailed as the home of live country music, is also trying to come to grips with similar gripes.

Converts to the burst of new residential building in the heart of the state's capital complained about the nearby din, particularly along Austin's famed Sixth Street strip of clubs, a few of them open-air venues. They pointed out that enforcement of Austin's noise ordinance was a mockery, because the uniformed cop assigned to the task is required to take a five-minute decibel reading five feet outside an establishment's front door. Word of her appearance would ripple through the club, which would lower the band's amps well in time to avoid any citations.

The city proposed new procedures for gauging the noise level, as well as dropping the maximum allowable sound from 85 to 70 decibels. That set off howls among the music set, who noted that the noise from crowds even during band breaks exceeded the 70 decibels, meaning performers would be drowned out at the lower sound levels.

By Austin standards, Houston's ordinance seems whisper-quiet. Violations in residential areas can come if the noise exceeds 65 decibels until 10 p.m., and 58 decibels until 7 a.m. In all other areas, the limit is 68 decibels at any time, as measured from the property line.

There's no special exemption for downtown -- at least not yet -- where the residential limits apply in mixed-used neighborhoods. City Council, under the guidance of a committee led by Councilwoman Annise Parker, amended the law last year. That change was primarily aimed at allowing police to issue tickets for the booming bass sounds (even from cars) that may be under the decibel limit but that clearly disturb surrounding people with annoying vibrations.

Storemski says downtown officers have access to decibel meters to measure volume when they receive noise complaints. Tickets carry up to $500 in fines. He says they've cracked down on clubs and restaurants that were piping loud music onto sidewalks and into patio or deck areas. Amplified outdoor music is allowed only under special one-event permits.

Complaints are no longer falling on deaf ears, by all indications, as the influx of downtown residents starts organizing and shaping more political muscle. A meeting at the Rice Lofts two months ago was designed to forge the increasing number of resident associations into a downtown coalition. The session drew top officials in the administration of Mayor Lee Brown, and it included complaints about noise levels downtown.

"What we're trying to do is sort of mediate between the two groups," Storemski explains. "We certainly understand that people need to be able to sleep in apartments and lofts at night. We also understand that businesses need to be able to operate, too."

Meanwhile, Menez continues a more personal crusade. He notes that many downtown clubs manage to comply with proper soundproofing by merely keeping their doors shut, while others flaunt their sounds as a siren call to potential patrons.

He's now turning to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to use the noise issue in the upcoming license renewal process for Spy. He believes the clubs are trying to evade enforcement by overstating their value to a re-energized downtown.

"The revitalization is not the outgrowth of the clubs -- the clubs took advantage of what was there," he says. "It is not the other way around."

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