Redwood, a popular new bar at the north end of the Pike-Pine hipster drinking circuit, has fallen under the city's regulatory scrutiny, according to the bar's owners, after noise complaints from tenants in the apartment building across the street drew the attention of the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD). In recent weeks, the DPD has been drawn into an ongoing crackdown on clubs and bars by the city, as city officials look for new regulatory tools to keep rowdy establishments in line.
The bar—which is owned by business partners Tim Purtill, Lisa Jack, and Mat Brooke—opened in March in a space at 514 East Howell Street formerly occupied by a rundown bar and Laundromat. A few weeks later, someone filed a zoning complaint with the DPD; on April 24, the DPD sent a notice informing the bar that they would need to obtain a different permit to operate as a restaurant and a bar or the city could shut them down.
Redwood's owners say the complaint is part of a campaign to shut down the bar by a few disgruntled neighbors in the apartment building across the street; according to Jack, one neighbor calls the police every night about the smokers who congregate and talk outside the bar's front door. The apartment manager did not return a call for comment. However, she has written tenants at least two letters offering "tools that may help reduce the noise that has been interrupting your work and rest," Those "tools" include calling the city's nonemergency line, reporting violations to the liquor control board, and calling 911. "The police... tell me that 20 calls in nine months regarding a particular problem enables further, energetic action," one of the letters says. (Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb says this is not the case.)
Then, last week, a caller to The Conversation, an afternoon show on KUOW, complained on the air about noise from Redwood. "This bar has really become a nuisance in our neighborhood," the caller said. The next day, the owners say, the DPD called to say they were rescinding the permit.
Alan Justad, a DPD spokesman, disputes the Redwood owners' account of the situation, saying the bar is still in the middle of its initial permitting process. Justad says Redwood needs to operate primarily as a restaurant, serving food late and admitting minors, if it wants to stay in business. (Bars aren't allowed in "midrise" zones like the one Redwood is in unless DPD grants an exemption.) "When we look at their floor plan, it shows that 50 percent of the area is a bar, not a restaurant. That looks like a bar to me," Justad says. "You don't generally get noise complaints from restaurants. This is where we have to make a call."
Redwood's owners acknowledge that their customers do make noise, especially the smokers who have to stand outside. "I'm not saying we're angels. We give people alcohol. We're a bar," Jack says. "But our door guy sits around and spends the whole night saying, 'shh.' What more can we do?"
And it's hard to see how a casual neighborhood bar, even one that caters to noisy hipsters, isn't an improvement on the Laundromat/bar that was there before—a Laundromat that, according to Purtill, "was basically the living room for the homeless of Capitol Hill." Even as we're talking, a man who appears to be homeless and intoxicated pokes his head in, looking for the Laundromat.
Redwood's situation is not an isolated one. Already, two bars elsewhere in the city have gotten notice from the DPD that they need additional permits to operate as restaurants during the day and bars at night, after neighbors filed complaints about nighttime noise. Those permits would also mandate noise mitigation.
"The issue is whether the DPD can run roughshod over these establishments with new interpretations of the zoning code without doing rule making or public comment," Civil Rights Attorney David Osgood, who has agreed to defend the bar in its licensing disputes with the city, says. However, he adds, "The DPD doesn't do anything unless the mayor prods them. It's obviously an edict from the mayor's office." Mayoral spokesman Marty McOmber did not return several calls for comment, but said on The Conversation that the mayor believes bars "need to accommodate the neighborhood and make sure [they] aren't having an impact on the neighbors who were there before [them]."
Jack—who lives right around the corner from Redwood—says she hopes the bar can resolve the dispute with the DPD without having to shut down.