Mayor Mike McGinn is launching an ambitious eight-point plan this week to improve Seattle's nightlife—a plan that would extend bar hours past the 2:00 a.m. closing time, give police the authority to ticket drunk and belligerent "street nuisances," and put more taxis and transit options near late-night hot spots. The measure already has the backing of both the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and nightlife activists, who say that the changes are long overdue.
"The beauty of this process is that you've got all the right people at the table talking about how to do this right, together," says assistant Seattle police chief Mike Sanford.
The package of proposals is the result of last year's election promises made to Seattle's music industry, which creates over 11,000 jobs and generates $90 million in local sales and taxes a year. Bar and club owners felt they had become victims of politically motivated anti-nightlife crackdowns—crafted at city hall by former mayor Greg Nickels and former city attorney Tom Carr—and then, to replace Nickels and Carr, the nightlife lobby campaigned aggressively for McGinn and Pete Holmes. "A safe, vibrant nightlife is important to Seattle's emergence from this stubborn recession and maintaining our creative, dynamic, and sociable urban culture," says Holmes, who won the city attorney's seat in a landslide victory in November. Holmes also helped McGinn draft the nightlife plan.
But before it takes effect, the proposal will require not only the cooperation of Seattle policy leaders, but also the support of Seattle neighborhoods in nightlife hot spots. But some Belltown denizens, at least, say the mayor's ambitions may fall short.
"The initiative has a very large number of loose ends," says Richard Nordstrom, president of the Belltown Community Council. He is concerned about McGinn's plan to extend liquor-service hours, make nightclub and bar security staff enroll in SPD training courses, and create a so-called compliance team made up of city officials to work with troubled bars and nightclubs. "There's no accountability here for bars that overserve, don't properly train their security teams, or leave piles of trash outside their establishment," Nordstrom adds. "Regulations need teeth—like escalating fines—to be legitimate, and these seemingly have none for nightclub and bar owners."
But nightlife advocates say there are teeth in several of the proposals. As currently written, noise rules are rarely enforced. McGinn's plan would require proof of a noise violation—not just a complaint or the sense that a club is being too loud—before officers could issue a ticket. New regulations would require a resident to complain and police to go inside the complainant's home, shut all the doors and windows, and then measure the noise levels to see if the business was louder than 80 decibels. If so, the bar could face a fine of $1,000.
"It takes out the possibility of police targeting specific businesses," says Dave Meinert, a nightlife advocate and owner of the 5 Point Cafe downtown. "It's fair."
Assistant Chief Sanford agrees that the noise rules would wbe "a lot easier for police officers to enforce."
Police and bar owners also agree that a so-called meathead ordinance is long overdue. If passed by the city council, the measure would allow police to issue tickets for some public-nuisance behaviors—such as fighting and drunk and disorderly conduct—between the hours of midnight and 5:00 a.m. in targeted nightlife areas. Currently, there's no rule for dealing with these people—the city's disorderly conduct law only applies to people who interrupt public meetings, not drunken public nuisances. "We see precursors for fights all the time," says Sanford. "But we can't intervene until after something has happened. This will allow us to intervene before there's trouble."
And the proposed ordinance is specific enough that it won't infringe on individual freedoms, says Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington (which vehemently opposed a recent bill to cite people for aggressive panhandling anywhere in the city at an officer's discretion). "This gives a reasonable time frame for addressing the problem, it limits the areas it can be used, and it gives the alternative of citations instead of making behavior a crime," Shaw says.
Seattle city council member Sally Clark says people at city hall have "talked about a jackass citation for years but never pulled it off. I'm hoping it changes people's ideas of what's acceptable street behavior."
To get drunks home, the plan would also beef up late-night transportation options. "Obviously, extending transit hours is a challenge right now because of budget issues, but having a long-term plan that accommodates late-night transit users is vital," says Council Member Mike O'Brien. O'Brien says the taxi commission is briefing him on ways to create taxi stands in late-night, high-traffic areas.
The plan also proposes that bars and clubs submit calendars of events to SPD, which would allow officers working different beats to plan on how to allocate resources. And it would require all bar and nightclub security staff to take SPD safety-training classes, which are now electively offered to private businesses. "We've seen that well-trained security tends to be more friendly and welcoming with patrons because they know their jobs," says Sanford.
Other aspects of the eight-point plan aren't new: creating guidelines for nightclub good business practices, deploying a compliance team to work with nightlife businesses and other agencies, and arranging meetings between residents and nightlife businesses to encourage productive communication.
There's no timeline yet for implementing later bar hours (which requires the state liquor control board's approval) or better late-night transit options (which requires cooperation from regional transit agencies). The mayor has asked for a two-month comment period for the plan to engage the public. Meetings are scheduled with precinct advisory councils and community councils to gather public comment, and surveys about the initiative are available online. But the hard part is still ahead: turning those election promises into city policies.