Nickels's Bar Restrictions Won't Help Belltown Condo Owners Sleep Any Easier
It's midnight, maybe midnight thirty, and I'm sitting on a pillowy beige couch in a spacious Belltown condo owned by Dallas transplants John and Sandy Cook. I've been invited here, along with city council member Sally Clark, to observe the horror that is Belltown on a Friday night. The Cooks live at ground zero for the residents-versus-nightclubs war that plays out every weekend night in Belltown: the Pomeroy condos, a 2001 development now situated above Twist, a bar the city forced—under pressure from Pomeroy residents—to sign an extremely restrictive "good-neighbor agreement" as a condition of opening late last year.
The Cooks, in other words, personify the kind of empty-nest Belltown residents we at The Stranger have vilified over the years. They moved to a neighborhood with lots of bars and clubs (fewer then, but still more than other parts of town) and now they hate the noise, they hate the smoke, and they hate the traffic brought into Belltown by hundreds of bar-hopping suburbanites every weekend night. What they aren't, they tell me, is anti-nightlife. In fact, at least one of the solutions they propose to the problem of late-night noise and violence is something The Stranger itself has endorsed.
"It's not our intent to ban bars and clubs," John Cook says in a thick Texas accent. "But the area around here has changed since we moved here in 2001," with large clubs like Venom (formerly Medusa, which in turn replaced an Italian restaurant) and Tabella moving in. Currently, there are about 25 bars and clubs in the immediate vicinity of the Pomeroy.
Twist, like Venom, used to be a restaurant; tonight, despite the good-neighbor agreement and the best efforts of the black-clad bouncer ("The upstairs neighbors would prefer that you didn't smoke in front of the bar"), a huge crowd has congregated outside. The guys are shouting back and forth, the girls are screaming (since when did "Woo!" become the mating call of choice for Bellevue bottle blondes?), and people are still lighting up despite the bouncer's admonitions. "It's been a real pain in the butt for our second-floor residents," John Cook says. "The second floor isn't air-conditioned, so all summer they leave their windows open. Those people are less than eight feet above the heads of Twist's customers."
A similar scene plays out every night outside bars throughout the neighborhood. Down the street at Amber, a meat-markety bar that replaced the even more meat-markety Axis, two girls are supporting a friend who's too drunk to stand up and trying to get her to drink some water. Over at First Avenue and Bell Street, a crowd has congregated in front of a hot-dog stand that is blasting hiphop from a battery-powered boom box. Other bars, including Del Rey and Belltown Bistro, vie for drinkers' attention with amplified outdoor music. Venom and Tabella, two large dance clubs down on Western Avenue, are both mobbed, with dozens of people spilling out onto the sidewalk. The clubs let out at around 1:45 a.m., but no one's going anywhere; instead, they congregate on the sidewalks and parking lots, not ready to call it a night. At Tabella, three bicycle cops are supplemented by six squad cars—every single car in the downtown area—which seal off the street in a vain effort to disperse the crowd.
All of which, John Cook acknowledges, is really difficult for the city to do anything about. Standing around isn't illegal—neither is screaming, talking loudly, honking cars horns, or generally being obnoxious. (The folks who go out in Belltown definitely aren't my people, but I completely support vibrant neighborhoods with lots of late-night activity and street life—even if I don't choose to go there.) "I don't know how you keep people from going out on the sidewalk," Cook says. "In the summer, it's four times as bad."
The mayor's nightlife legislation—which would make clubs responsible for policing the area in and around their property for noise and litter—wouldn't do anything to address the issue of people standing around talking after closing time, because there's nothing illegal about standing around and talking. Moreover, the bouncers we saw did try to get people to leave; the problem was, the customers didn't listen. More police presence, something the Cooks want to see, might help; Council Member Clark believes the more cops are in an area, the less incentive people have "to feel like they can act stupid." Cook says that if cops "just did sobriety checks on people as they're coming out of parking lots"—something other cities have tried—"that would be a big help."
However, other Belltown residents say it's unfair to dedicate a huge police force to a single purpose. Zander Batchelder, president of the Belltown Neighborhood Council, says law-abiding "business people and residents are subsidizing these clubs because so many police resources are going toward babysitting them." The BNC has endorsed the mayor's nightlife legislation.
The Cooks, though they do support the legislation, are more ambivalent. They're unconvinced that city regulation can solve the problems in Belltown—many of which seem to be caused by overserving, a state liquor board enforcement issue. One possibility they're willing to consider: later or staggered closing hours, which could help eliminate the problem of hundreds of people pouring out of bars at the same instant. "Different closing hours might help," Sandy Cook says. "Of course, we'd prefer it be earlier, but people aren't ready to go home at 11:00 p.m. anymore, so maybe it could be later." There is, the Cooks noted, a point at which people are actually ready to go home—but that point, clearly, is not 2:00 a.m. And once the bars let out, people have nowhere to go (Belltown has just one all-night diner)—so they hang around and, sometimes, cause trouble. As Clark and I were walking through Belltown after visiting with the Cooks, a huge brawl broke out at the corner of Second Avenue and Bell Street; about a dozen guys threw punches at each other in the middle of the street until one of the cops came over from Tabella to break it up. After calling 911, we called it a night.