Facing the Music

Spy revs up for another night.
Deron Neblett

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.

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.

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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