In late August, a woman called police on her first night in a brand-new Ballard retirement home to complain about noise coming through her open windows from Ballard Avenue North-west. Mary Shepard, executive director of the home, Ballard Landmark, says, "She had a rough night sleeping from the noise coming from the taverns." One side of the building, which had been open only two weeks, faces a strip of long-established bars and clubs, including Hattie's Hat and the Tractor Tavern.
Shepard says she moved the woman to a quieter apartment facing an interior courtyard. But because only 30 of the building's 146 units are currently occupied, it's probably only a matter of time before someone else moves into the noisy apartment and calls the cops again.
It doesn't matter that the clubs were there first. Under an ordinance passed last December, bars and clubs amplifying noise that is "plainly audible" from inside nearby buildings face a fine between $1,000 and $2,000. As developers build more residential buildings in commercial areas—capitalizing on the appeal of "vibrant" neighborhoods—more and more bars and clubs will be breaking the law.
The city council knew there would be conflict between nightlife areas and new housing. Moments before the council passed the noise law last year, its sponsor, Council Member Sally Clark, recalled standing in front of the Last Supper Club in Pioneer Square and seeing a multistory apartment building rise across the street. "New building structures... need to take into account that there is noise at the street level and it comes up," Clark said.
Good idea—but the ordinance doesn't require developers to "take [noise] into account" by including sound buffers in new apartment buildings. Nor does it exempt preexisting clubs from the new restrictions.
Instead, the law says that noise from clubs can't be louder than "ambient noise"—a term that could mean anything from the noise at 1:00 a.m. on a typical Saturday to the sound of cars going by. The city's Nightlife Advisory Board, appointed by the council, will try to define "ambient noise" later this year.
John LeMaster, owner of the Tin Hat Bar & Grill in Ballard, worries that the ordinance could kill the bars and clubs that make neighborhoods like Ballard appealing to newcomers. If, for example, the two old buildings across the street from his bar were redeveloped as condos, his bar—which has been at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street for 50 years—could be in violation of the law.
"Am I going to have someone hear noise from their condo window and call and complain about it, and suddenly I'm being tracked as a trouble bar and my liquor license is in jeopardy?" asks LeMaster, who is a member of the Nightlife Advisory Board.
Council Member Nick Licata, chair of the Culture, Civil Rights, Health & Personnel Committee, says that if the nightlife board and the mayor fail to reach a compromise both clubs and residents can live with, the council may have to rewrite the law. "I think there has to be some reasonable recognition of whoever was there first," Licata says.