A woman who moved into an apartment a half block from Neighbours, a gay dance club that has operated on Broadway since the early 1980s, has called 911 "once or twice every night" for the past 21 months to complain about noise, she says. Her calls began in June 2007, shortly after she moved into a new low-income apartment building owned by the nonprofit Capitol Hill Housing at Pine Street and Broadway.
The 56-year-old retired nurse, who asked not to be named, calls herself "an old rock 'n' roll queen from way back when." Her one-bedroom corner apartment looks south onto the roof of Neighbours—and, indeed, the howl of ambulances and the rumble of traffic are plainly audible inside her living room on a weekday afternoon.
"If it was just music I was hearing, it would be fine," the woman says. "But what we hear is bass and bass only. And it has been so loud in the past that the windows rattle." The cacophony from drunken throngs in the alley, she says, also penetrates her fourth-story windows.
On a typical Saturday night last month, the woman called police shortly after 2:00 a.m. The responding officer noted in a report that the woman "calls nightly to complain about music from this club... She has told officers in the past that she wants to close this club down and will call as many times as it takes to accomplish this."
The woman denies wanting to shut down Neighbours. She says she just wants the club to close by 2:00 a.m. (it is open until 3:00 a.m. on Thursdays and until 4:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). She also thinks club security should usher people into the alley down to Pike Street, away from her building.
The hundreds of calls to police raise questions about whether city noise laws should specifically accommodate noisy clubs that were in the business districts first—and whether new residents who choose to move near noisy clubs should have to accept it.
"Clearly the noise ordinance is not [working], or else the city would be fining Neighbours $1,000 a week," the woman says. The city fines bars and clubs that violate the noise ordinance $1,000 for the first violation and $2,000 for subsequent violations, or it requires the establishments to invest that money in soundproofing. But the city has not penalized Neighbours in response to the woman's complaints.
The noise ordinance, which the city council passed in December 2007, applies to bars and clubs that have amplified noise that is "plainly audible" from inside nearby buildings.
The term "plainly audible" is vague, acknowledges city council member Sally Clark, who sponsored the noise legislation.
The city council–appointed Nightlife Advisory Board has proposed setting various noise levels for different portions of the city, but the council hasn't done anything with the board's recommendations. As it stands, the noise ordinance allows new residents to challenge noisy bars—even bars that have operated for decades, like Neighbours.
Bars, unlike apartment buildings, can only exist in business districts. So it seems like exempting long-established bars and clubs from residential noise rules makes sense.
But Clark disagrees. "To me, it doesn't necessarily matter who got there first," she says. "I don't know if I subscribe to the idea that there are entertainment districts with different noise thresholds."
Clark suggests that residential builders should be required to include sound insulation in homes built in business districts; however, Clark, who is chair of the city council's planning committee (which would handle that type of legislation), hasn't introduced any bills requiring developers to do that. She also says club owners should install sound insulation and use other noise-mitigation techniques: "I don't think I buy that the 'boom, boom, boom' has to get out of the building," she says.
Nightlife advocates say the kind of insulation Clark is talking about would be prohibitively expensive.
"If we were to spend that much money insulating sound, we wouldn't be able to survive as viable businesses," says Steven Severin, an owner of Neumos, a venue a block from Neighbours on Pike Street.
John Kmetz, who has managed Neighbours' sound and lighting system for the past 15 years, says that the club has tried to address noise concerns. In mid- January, he says, Neighbours installed sound insulation on the ceiling, covered skylights, installed double doors, and capped the sound system's volume—and the woman continued to complain about the noise. A police report says no one else in the apartment building near Neighbours complains, but the woman who lives there says the sound from Neighbours bothers others in her building, too.
David Meinert, a band manager and nightlife advocate, says, "We live in a city, and in the city there is noise. And if you want to live in a city without noise, you are going to live in a boring, cultureless city." He adds, "Politicians who are against nightlife are listening to the people calling the police 500 times instead of the 500 people a night at that venue."