To walk inside Twist—a cavernous Belltown lounge whose stark interior is softened by diaphanous lavender curtains, gauzy shades, and walls the color of grape soda—is to step into the future of nightlife in Seattle. Although Twist just opened its doors this spring, it already has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the most heavily regulated bar in Seattle. Among the 54 special regulations included in Twist's "good-neighbor agreement"—an agreement Twist's owners were required to sign before the city and state would sign off on its permits and liquor license—are the following restrictions: no dance floor; no dancing, period; no outside promoters; no DJs; no outdoor seating or sidewalk cafe; no opening of doors or windows; no drinks allowed after 1:40 a.m.; no line longer than 20 feet (a concession, the original agreement mandated no line at all); no nighttime happy hour. Those are the don'ts. As for the dos: security on the premises, wearing "finely tailored black suits," at all times (another compromise, the original agreement required black T-shirts with the word "SECURITY" in large white capital letters); a dress code; lights on and music off at 1:30 a.m. All the restrictions are legally binding; all are permanent.
Twist co-owner David Lyon—a tall, fit thirtysomething with bleached blond hair and a tidy goatee—is perched on the back of a soft purple booth, framed by a panoramic view of Elliott Bay. Gesturing around at the booths and bar stools populated by twenty-, thirty- and fortysomething professionals engaged in quiet after-work conversation, he snorts, exasperated, "We're not a nightclub!" A former manager at Medusa, the rowdy (and now defunct) dance club on Western Avenue, Lyon says he "didn't want [Twist] to be Medusa. We made it clear from the very beginning that we were going to be a restaurant and lounge." Nonetheless, before Twist even opened, the city sided with the residents of the building in which the bar is located, the Pomeroy, who worried that the bar would be a source of noise, violence, and general pandemonium. "The way the city handled [Twist's permitting] was absurd," Lyon says.
Bar and club owners had hoped that stories like Lyon's would be vanquished by the creation of a Nightlife Task Force, the brainchild of Mayor Greg Nickels and his special assistant, Jordan Royer. The task force, according to its members and others in the nightlife industry, was supposed to replace a complex web of city regulations (including good-neighbor agreements like the one at Twist) with a single point of contact for nighttime businesses. Instead, they say, the mayor appears to be pushing forward with a heavy-handed regulatory approach, reducing the commission to a merely advisory body with no direct control over permits, enforcement, and other regulations. Worse, Nickels will almost certainly claim the task force's endorsement of his recommendations, putting a veneer of nightlife-industry approval on a process that remains firmly in the mayor's hands.
The current emphasis on nightlife as nuisance has been percolating in neighborhoods across the city for at least a decade. As Seattle neighborhoods become more dense, homeowners and young urban clubgoers increasingly occupy overlapping turf. Frequently, this commingling leads to clashes, as the latter group's desire to have a good time interferes with the former's ability to get a good night's sleep. The city, meanwhile, often finds itself working at cross purposes: on the one hand, promoting nightlife, a "vibrant downtown," and a "24-hour city" (commissioning a study, for example, showing that the music industry contributes $650 million to the local economy every year), while on the other hand kowtowing to developers and the new urbanites who populate their costly high-rise buildings, many of whom are more than willing to pick up the phone when the crowds outside nightclubs get too raucous. David Meinert, a music promoter and Mirabeau Room co-owner who lobbied for the creation of the city's music office in 2003, says "The policy of the city for a decade, 15 years, has been to get people to move from the suburbs and into the city. At the same time, the city is now taking this pro-music, pro-nightlife position"—setting up a conflict that, so far, has favored condo owners and wealthy developers over rowdy inner-city nightlife.
Indeed, noise—far more than public safety, which seems like a potentially more pressing concern—is the most common gripe of residents in densely populated parts of Seattle, according to residents, clubgoers, and bar owners themselves. James Keblas, director of the Mayor's Office of Film & Music, said in an interview earlier this year that noise "is going to become an issue that we have to deal with more and more as more people move downtown." (Keblas did not return calls and e-mails for this story.) According to David Osgood, a Seattle attorney who has represented many nightclubs in battles against the city, the issues police are dealing with "are not safety issues. I'm seeing a lot of low-level harassment and hyper-enforcement of laws. If there were real public-safety concerns, we would have heard about them." Osgood (who is not representing Twist) says the people who have a voice in city government are "a few very highly organized neighbors who scream the loudest. When you shell out half a million for a one-bedroom condo in downtown Seattle, you want things your way for your condo and about a half-mile radius."
Belltown is indisputably loud, of course, and getting louder. And not everyone who complains is a wealthy newcomer; even some longtime residents, like Recording Academy project coordinator Josh Ayala, say the club scene is getting too rowdy for their tastes. Ayala, who also sings in a band called the Vomiting Unicorns, lived at the corner of First Avenue and Bell Street until about a year ago. The noise from the clubs, he says, was "one big reason I left. The nightlife would go just ballistic on the weekends, with revelers going out into the street between two and three [a.m.]. I saw tons of fights and drunken brawls." However, Ayala says, he doesn't blame the clubs for the noise along First Avenue. "The mayor has been a full-on proponent of making Belltown basically a party zone. It's part of living in a downtown setting. The city can only do so much." Other neighborhoods, like Fremont and Ballard, are seeing similar transformations—with similar friction. Dan Cowan, co-owner of the Tractor Tavern in Ballard, says that while "we don't have an abundance of residential housing" around the Tractor at the moment, "there's definitely more coming... things tend to change very quickly."
Perhaps anticipating these changes, perhaps hoping to head off the clashes that will inevitably follow, the city—specifically the mayor's office, City Attorney Tom Carr (who answered all queries for this story with a blunt "Talk to the mayor"), and the city's Department of Planning and Development—has launched a regulatory preemptive strike, hitting clubs on at least four fronts. The first is good-neighbor agreements: lists of additional restrictions to which bars must agree before the city will sign off on their permits and liquor licenses. Besides Twist, the city has used good-neighbor agreements to regulate clubs in every corner of the city—including earlier this year at the Blue Moon Tavern, whose owner, Gus Hellthaler, has said he would sooner shut his doors than agree to the city's list of restrictions ["Moon Landing," Thomas Francis, Dec 8]. So far, the city has required 13 bars and retail businesses in Twist's police precinct (the West Precinct) to sign good-neighbor agreements; they include China Harbor on Westlake Avenue, Contour Club in downtown, and Joe's Bar and Grill in the International District.
Twist's Lyon says the bar's good-neighbor-agreement problems started shortly after the restaurant's three-person management team started revamping the former Toreros (and, before that Fandango) space in Belltown. "[The homeowners' association] wanted to have complete quiet all the time," Lyon says. Within a few weeks, Lyon says, "things got really out of hand. I would understand if we were a problem tenant, but we weren't even open yet." The good-neighbor agreement, a compromise between what Twist's owners wanted (an ordinary restaurant license) and what the city sought (an outlandish agreement that would have prohibited Twist from so much as having a waiting list) nonetheless constrains Twist from ever changing its concept even slightly—for example, by having a DJ spin records in the corner. "There are tiny profit margins in the restaurant business. We're just barely making our numbers," Lyon says. "You've got to be able to adapt to pay your bills."
Even the president of the Belltown Community Council, Zander Batchelder, is sympathetic to Twist and other club owners' concerns. While Batchelder says noise from clubs is "a form of intrusion, like listening to someone's car alarm," he adds that restrictions such as limiting the length of Twist's line are "really egregious. You read some of that stuff and it just seems... almost Sovietesque. 'We're going to shoot this guy as an example to you guys.'"
Pete Hanning, co-chair of the Nightlife Task Force and owner of the Red Door bar in Fremont, calls the city's regulatory emphasis on Twist "insulting... the bars across the street didn't have to sign [good-neighbor agreements], and that's just unfair." Across First Avenue, the Del Rey, an upscale lounge opened by the owners of Capitol Hill's Barça last year, has outdoor seating and a late-night happy hour—two features that put it at a competitive advantage over the far more heavily regulated Twist. The unequal treatment, Lyon says, is his "number-one pet peeve" about his good-neighbor agreement. "I don't mind signing the agreement, but I think everyone else should be held to the same standards."
In addition to good-neighbor agreements, the city has come up with new enforcement tools to make sure existing regulations, significant to minuscule, are enforced. Last year, the mayor's office, under the leadership of special assistant Jordan Royer, headed up the creation of the Joint Assessment Team (JAT), an ad-hoc group of representatives from the city's departments of fire, police, health, revenue, planning, and transportation, and the Washington State Liquor Control Board. The JAT's goal is to make sure clubs are in compliance with city rules; last August, Royer said the reason the city formed the JAT was "because the new nightclubs weren't really aware of the regulations that were at work in the city." (Another possible reason is a widespread perception that the liquor control board, which has the power to grant and deny liquor licenses, slacked off somewhat on enforcement after the state loosened its liquor regulations in 2000. Among other changes, the liquor board no longer requires bars to serve full meals or to have specific kitchen equipment.)
The city vowed that the JAT would come up with tools to help new clubs open and existing clubs operate. In practice, however, the JAT has acted more like a bureaucratic SWAT team, sweeping into clubs and cracking down on violations that border on minutiae, such as the open-flame permits required in venues that want votive candles on their tables. "They come in like the Gestapo and want you to stop doing business at your busiest time," on Friday and Saturday nights, Mirabeau Room co-owner Meinert said when the JAT was first making its rounds.
In addition to the JAT, the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD)—which, unlike the city attorney's office (which handles good-neighbor agreements), answers directly to the mayor—has been tangling quietly with bars that elicit complaints from neighboring residents, requiring the bars to obtain additional permits (in most cases, a "drinking establishment" designation that allows them to operate as a bar after they stop serving food at 10:00 p.m.) to stay in business after restaurant hours. With these permits come extra conditions, such as maintaining quiet after a certain hour. So far, two restaurants, Cafe Langano on First Hill and El Chupacabra in Phinney Ridge, have been targeted by the DPD after neighbors complained about after-hours noise. El Chupacabra is on a busy commercial street; Langano is in the middle of a dense inner-city neighborhood. Osgood, who represents both, says the DPD has "just decided to arbitrarily reclassify restaurants as drinking establishments" with no due process, such as a ruling from DPD Director Diane Sugimura, to make the new policy official. (DPD spokesman Alan Justad says the department does not need a formal rule to reclassify establishments as bars.)
A third club, Redwood on Capitol Hill, has also fallen under DPD scrutiny, though for slightly different reasons: The bar, which replaced a dilapidated Laundromat on the once-seedy edge of the Pike/Pine drinking circuit, drew complaints from the residents of a neighboring apartment complex, who said Redwood's patrons were talking too loudly when they went outside to smoke ["Bar Brawl," Erica C. Barnett, June 8]. (The smoking ban, which Washington State voters approved last November, has forced bar patrons onto sidewalks and led to a rash of complaints about noise and cigarette litter around bar properties.) Legally, bar owners are not responsible for the sidewalks outside their establishments, although the city has encouraged bars and clubs to ask noisy patrons to keep it down. Redwood co-owner Mat Brooke points out that not only does the bar's doorman sit around telling patrons to keep the noise down, "we're getting a custom neon sign that says, 'Shh.' What more can we do?"
Plenty more, according to the DPD, which says bars like Redwood are not allowed in mid-rise areas like the one in which it's located. Not only does the department want Redwood to comply with city code, they want its owners to turn the bar into a restaurant; currently, Redwood serves peanuts, not meals. According to Osgood, who represents Redwood, "the issue is whether the Department of Planning and Development can run roughshod over [bars] with new interpretations of the zoning code. They're deciding to enforce rules that they've never enforced before."
According to spokesman Justad, the DPD does just that all the time. He explains: "We routinely interpret the code in ways that aren't explicitly in the code." Redwood, he says, is "very close to residents. [Bars] need to be mindful of that when they allow drinking." Tim Purtill, one of Redwood's three owners, says he's still waiting to hear from the DPD what changes the bar needs to make to comply with the DPD's new zoning requirements. At the very least, he says, Redwood will have to open a full kitchen and convert half of its now-open floor plan into a restaurant. "We can still be here, but we have to serve food for all the hours we're open, which is kind of a drag, because we don't serve food at all right now," Purtill says. Despite the fact that the complaints about Redwood are coming from a few disgruntled residents across the street, and that Redwood has, if anything, improved the neighborhood by displacing drug addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes from the corner of Summit Avenue and Howell Street, the city views Redwood as a nuisance. Its solution? Change it into something neighboring residents can accept or shut the doors for good.
The city's patchwork of disparate, frequently overlapping regulations isn't working. Everybody knows it: the club owners, who feel overregulated and unfairly targeted; neighborhood residents, who frequently resort to calling 911 (in Redwood's case, 17 calls in the last two months), tying up an already overburdened emergency-service system with petty noise complaints; and the city itself, which has responded to complaints with a perplexing maze of regulations.
Last year, in an effort to tie together all these overlapping and competing regulatory interests, Mayor Nickels created the city's first Nightlife Task Force—a formal, city-staffed advisory body made up of club owners, neighborhood representatives, and developer and business interests. In addition to making recommendations on noise and, to a lesser extent, safety concerns, the task force was supposed to provide assistance to prospective bar and club owners "so they don't have a difficult time navigating the city bureaucracy," as task force liaison Jordan Royer told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time. (No one from the mayor's office, including Royer, returned calls for this story.)
Initially, club representatives on the 15-member body had high hopes for what the task force could accomplish. Task-force members say they wanted to create a regulatory commission modeled on San Francisco's Entertainment Commission, which was created in response to club owners who complained that San Francisco's system—which required clubs to obtain as many as three different, very costly permits—presented too many confusing barriers to entry for prospective nightclub owners. Formed in 2003, the Entertainment Commission now accepts, reviews, and grants entertainment-related permit applications and mediates disputes between clubs and neighbors. It also administers San Francisco's version of the good-neighbor agreement, which, unlike Seattle's, has reasonable requirements (cleaning up litter, asking patrons to be quiet) that apply equally to every entertainment venue in the city.
"What we wanted was a commission, a body of individuals that is not the city, to make decisions and enforce regulations," task-force member Jerry Everard, who owns part of Neumo's, Rendezvous, and Spitfire, says. "We were notified that that was politically infeasible." Under Seattle law, boards and commissions are essentially advisory bodies, with no rule-making or other regulatory authority; changing their function would require changing the law, and there's currently no momentum to do so. Without enforcement power, Everard says, "I think you depart very dramatically from the San Francisco model."
Although the task force will create an advisory board to make suggestions to the city about how to regulate nightlife without overreaching, that board will be, as its name suggests, merely advisory. It's better than nothing, task-force members say, but hardly visionary. "I guess I had higher hopes" for the task force, Everard says. "I looked at the San Francisco model and I felt there might be a way to really come up with some solutions to relieve some of the tension between residents and bar owners. When the task force was first convened, that was held out as a model we would strive to follow." Since then, however, "the mayor's office has been really focused on institutionalizing good-neighbor agreements as opposed to beneficial proposals." After nearly nine months, Everard says, the task force "hasn't come up with any recommendations of its own."
Indeed, the legacy of the task force may be lending its de-facto stamp of approval to two controversial proposals Nickels himself made months ago: good-neighbor agreements, which the city currently only requires when neighborhood residents raise issues about a new or existing establishment; and nightclub licenses, which many nightlife-industry advocates say are the reincarnation of former City Attorney Mark Sidran's added-activities ordinance. That ordinance, which required any business with a liquor license to get permission from the city to host music, dance, or other entertainment (and agree to a long list of additional security, noise abatement, crowd control, and other requirements), was struck down in 1999 as an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech. (Osgood was the lead attorney on that case, too.)
The mayor's nightclub license—which task-force members say would include restrictions similar to those in Sidran's added-activities ordinance—defines nightclubs quite broadly. According to documents from the mayor's office, the new licensing law would apply to any establishment "in which any singing, music, dancing, or other similar entertainment is permitted in connection with any hotel, restaurant, cafe, tavern, bar, or club directly selling, serving, or providing the public with liquor." The only bars that would be exempt from licensing are those without any entertainment whatsoever, or those with entertainment that consists of "recorded music or radio" only.
Task force co-chair Hanning says the licenses were "never discussed by the task force" and seem to him "like just another stick" in the city's already punitive regulatory strategy. Hanning sounds relieved, however, that some of the city's more onerous suggestions—such as a requirement that all bars keep a bouncer on duty after 10:00 p.m. every night—were eventually rescinded after bar owners cried foul. "I wish my business was busy enough on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday nights that [a doorman] was necessary," Hanning says. As it is, however, "I'm down to one server and one bartender consistently after that time period. Financially, that did not make sense."
Mayor Nickels's proposal will also reportedly include a provision to make good-neighbor agreements uniform and universal—something some on the task force could probably accept as long as they aren't excessively restrictive. Across-the-board good-neighbor agreements would be a departure from the city's approach so far, which has been, essentially, to ignore clubs until someone complains, then slap them with onerous regulations while giving nearby competitors a pass. "Good-neighbor agreements, because they're not handed out universally, legally don't have a lot of teeth," Hanning says. "And yet, I also think they're unfair to the people who have had to sign them." Hanning claims a better idea would be giving bars the flexibility to stay open later (so patrons won't all spill out onto the streets at the same time) and requiring people who move into mixed-use neighborhoods to sign documents acknowledging that they realize their neighbors include late-night businesses.
As for good-neighbor agreements, Everard says that he's all for providing standards for late-night businesses to follow, as long as those standards are uniform (which across-the-board good-neighbor agreements would presumably be) and fair (something that will remain unclear until the mayor's office releases its model good-neighbor-agreement proposal). "My biggest concern about this whole regulatory scheme is that it's yet another tax on nighttime businesses that's going to make it harder and harder to have a vibrant nightlife," Everard says.
Although bar owners say they're reserving judgment about the mayor's recommendations until they're released later this year, some, such as James Hardy of El Chupacabra (who could not be reached for this story) are reportedly already working behind the scenes to organize the Seattle nightlife industry. (There's a model for this in San Francisco, too: the Late Night Coalition, which coalesced around the issue of club overregulation to promote and preserve San Francisco's late-night scene. San Francisco's Entertainment Commission came out of the coalition's work.)
Osgood, who represents El Chupacabra, says organizing bar owners has, historically, been like "herding cats. Their first impulse has been to turn on each other." When the city was only targeting hiphop clubs, like Larry's in Pioneer Square and Mr. Lucky on Lower Queen Anne, the city's much larger contingent of dance-club and bar owners had no incentive to get together. "Now, everyone's edgy and looking over their shoulders. I think it's the best environment we've had for organizing in a long time."
Mirabeau Room co-owner Meinert, a longtime advocate for Seattle's music industry, says if the city hews to its current anti-club agenda, the nightlife industry is "going to have to organize and start doing what we did before, like throwing people out of office." Seattle City Council Member Richard McIver is the only elected official currently in office to win reelection after being opposed by the music community and its now-defunct political-action committee, JAMPAC; Mayor Nickels, meanwhile, won a very tight race against Mark Sidran thanks largely to the nightlife industry, which opposed Sidran's punitive approach to regulation. Meinert seems keenly aware of Nickels's ironic turnaround. "If this task force ends up being toothless, with no regulatory authority, and the city keeps using good-neighbor agreements, the city's going to be screwing the nightlife community, and we'll have to fight back," he says.