Right across the street from the First Hill building I live in, construction workers are busily transforming a vast cement pit into a high-rise condominium named Luma. Its website describes the completed structure as a "half haven, half hotspot" with a long list of unsurprising attributes. In deliberate contrast to "the grandeur of the surrounding historic homes," for instance, Luma "makes a modern mark" with towering walls that appear to be "wrapped in sleek glass," and it rests within walking distance of the Pike/Pine corridor, where "nights out sizzle."
I don't want to care about Luma, but its presence affects me in a rich variety of ways. It even gets into my dreams. Just about every morning, I'm smacked awake by the noises drifting up from the site, including loud engines and alert beepers that activate whenever the construction vehicles back up. I wad earplugs into my ears, stack my head with pillows. Nothing works. The beepers beep and beep and beep. As 40 minutes pass, I lie in a near-hallucinatory state and quietly examine every mistake I've ever made in my life. Then my alarm goes off, and I have to get up and get ready for work.
It's irritating for sure, but I'm not dying, and I figure as long as Luma's team operates within the city's established guidelines, I simply have to make do with less morning sleep. General construction noise is allowed in Seattle's multifamily and neighborhood commercial zones 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends and holidays. For impact construction (work involving jackhammers, vacuum-pump trucks, or pile drivers), it's 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends and holidays.
These seem like more-than-robust schedules to build things, and that's why my tolerance burst the week Luma's team worked outside these limits. As I remember, I was awakened by the sound of a jackhammer at 7 a.m., which I understand is a violation. (Don Korsmo, the superintendent of Luma's construction team, Lease Crutcher Lewis, said by e-mail that there is no way this happened. I'll return to my exchange with Korsmo in a bit.) Then on Friday, Luma's team began at 6 a.m., waking me up. They started the same time the next day. At 6 a.m., eruptive construction noise ruined what would have been a normal Saturday morning.
I called Korsmo to complain. (I didn't know it then, but calling the construction staff is a mistake. If it's 6 a.m., and you're in the same situation, try our city's noise-abatement inspectors instead: Jeff Stalter at 615-1760, James Dasher at 615-1190, or David George at 684-7843.) Korsmo explained his team was within its rights because it had a temporary noise variance (TNV). That sounds like a made-up thing, but it's not. To learn more about it, I e-mailed Department of Planning and Development (DPD) spokesperson Wendy Shark, who consulted with manager of building inspection services Dave Cordaro.
Here's the deal. A TNV allows someone to "vary from the limits of the noise control code under specific circumstances, usually for a limited period of time," according to the DPD website. The application costs $190, and the collected fee gets deposited in DPD accounts. "If the fee is so small, why not admit our city really doesn't have a noise penalty?" I asked Shark.
"Payment of the fee has no bearing on whether to allow a variance," said Shark. The fee represents only the administrative cost recovery for DPD's efforts to review the application, draft the conditions, and issue the variance.
"But aren't the sounds just as loud, whether the fee has been paid or not?" I asked.
Anyone can apply for a variance, said Shark, so long as they have a need to make noise for some purpose. Usually it's construction. The applicant must prove that the variance is necessary, that all reasonable measures will be taken to reduce the noise, and that the noise won't "annoy a substantial number of people."
Wait, what? I live in a high-rise in a designated multifamily zone. The surrounding blocks are dense with residential buildings. Doesn't that count as annoying "a substantial number of people"?
"A project in an area with apartments nearby does not necessarily create a substantial impact on those residents," DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens said by e-mail. But he must not have been referencing Luma's specific situation. I've had friends come over and confirm just how disruptive the project is.
Even still, the request for the TNV passed city standards. Stevens listed general factors DPD reviewed, but one portion of his answer suggests that in my case, the builder's necessity played the most powerful role. We "determine if the activity has alternatives. Some do not. Luma had a large concrete pour, which triggered the need to accommodate a continuous pour for a structural slab. Our conditions of approval are intended to limit the likelihood of disturbance within the necessary scope of work and limited time frame." But should the project still cause an annoyance, despite DPD's conditions, it's up to the residents to call in their complaints to the city. (The complaint line is 615-0808. Call right as the noise is happening.)
Sometimes, though, residents like me get caught off guard. According to Shark, after an applicant's TNV gets approved, the applicant is supposed to physically deliver hard-copy notices to all residential neighbors a minimum of 72 hours before the noise starts. Should the city discover the applicant is failing to comply, the city might issue a citation, and potentially the applicant's next variance request could be denied. But I certainly hadn't received any notice that my dreams were going to be cut short by beeping machinery and noisy trucks. My building's three managers said they didn't either.
Let's return to my e-mail exchange with Korsmo. When I asked him why we hadn't received notification, Korsmo asked that I redirect my questions to Ed Baird, the vice president of Lowe Enterprises—a company described by its website as a "diversified national real estate organization, operating from a foundation of core values and a commitment to excellence, integrity, and sound business values." Baird did not respond to my e-mails or voice mail.
Baird obviously leaves me guessing here, but perhaps the punishments the city has set up are too minimal to matter? After all, an applicant could save himself a big hassle by not performing the basic task of physical delivery. Rather than alert the residential neighbors, the applicant may hope to just slide by, avoiding potential complaints. Residents might not react quickly when they hear noise or not know what the remedies are. Perpetuating this cycle, any monitoring the city does to ensure the builder is following delivery-notice protocol begins with residential complaints. So make some. Maybe you're hearing other violations. If you hear the drumfire of a jackhammer at 7 a.m., chances are our city won't know until you call in. Again, that complaint line is 615-0808.