DOZENS OF SLEEP-DEPRIVED DOWNTOWN residents stormed City Hall last week armed with horror stories about raucous churches, unmuffled motorcycles, rehearsing bands, college kids (apparently loud by definition), street musicians, laughing people, and other purveyors of noise pollution. Jill Janow, who owns a condo on Pike Street, complained that she was fed up with patrons of the Capitol Club "laughing and speaking in loud voices" at all hours of the night. "Unnecessary, obnoxious noises" don't just deprive neighbors of sleep, she argued. They "come into your room," and even "invade your body"!

Janow and others are pushing the city to change its noise ordinance so that "public disturbance noises" would draw an automatic $250 fine. No warnings. No second chances. Those who offend twice in the same year would face a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

"Please," implored Cathryn Vandenbrink, chair of Sound Rights, a group fighting noise, "end the suffering and frustration of the citizens you were elected to protect."

Janow and Vandenbrink's pitch is just the latest in a wave of petty laws meant to bring civility, order, and silence to Seattle's streets. Having already cracked down on bums sitting on sidewalks, punks hanging posters on telephone poles, kids scrawling graffiti on buildings, and drunks peeing in alleys, the city is now taking aim at rogue nightclubs that impact "neighborhood livability standards," disorderly and trashy yards that constitute neighborhood "eyesores," and any person or place seen as a source of "loud and raucous" noises.

Seattle activist Matt Fox says, "It's all part of a pattern to turn Seattle into a safe, yuppie environment"--a place where people moving from the suburbs will feel comfortable. "We're heading toward becoming an over-regulated, overly expensive Nanny-State. Pretty soon we're gonna need sex permits."


Conflicts between residents and noise makers are especially heated in places like Denny Regrade, Belltown, and Pioneer Square, where condos are sprouting up at unprecedented rates, filling downtown with middle-class people who 10 years ago would have commuted from Bellevue or Lynnwood. Since 1987, the number of people living downtown has risen from under 10,000 to over 15,000. And that's just the beginning: According to a recent study by the Brookings Institute, 33,600 people will live in downtown Seattle by 2010. Many of the newcomers are "empty-nesters"--older couples with no kids and no need for a big, empty house (or a rowdy nightclub, for that matter).

Any urban environmentalist can tell you about the benefits of luring people into the city center: more pedestrians, fewer cars, a more vital shopping district, and less pressure to build housing on farmland and green spaces outside the city. "We'd much rather have people moving into downtown than rural Issaquah or Bear Creek," says Aaron Ostrom, the executive director of the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Washington. "When you increase urban density, you're preserving the outlying rural areas... and protecting streams, rivers, forests, and fish."

City Councilmember Richard Conlin agrees: "When you bring people downtown, you get people using land efficiently, because the land is already developed and the infrastructure is already in place." Conlin claims that the people currently moving downtown aren't the same people who require huge SUVs and big lawns of crabgrass. He does acknowledge, however, that they bring "certain expectations" to their adopted neighborhoods. "That can certainly generate conflicts," he says.


City Attorney Mark Sidran, the architect of Seattle's civility laws, says, "Most people who choose to live downtown have very cosmopolitan, urban values. They're here because they like the urban environment. But that doesn't mean they enjoy having people pee on their shoes, or watching people shoot up in the alley."

It's a typical Sidran statement, exaggerating the horrors of urban life to make the case for stricter laws. During a lengthy monologue on the subject of balancing "civility" with a vibrant cultural scene, Sidran is careful to maintain his own sense of balance. But he does slip at one point, saying, "Noisy clubs in residential areas are not compatible uses."

That's a frightening prospect for music fans, when you consider that all of downtown is on its way to becoming a residential area. Sidran is quick to point out that the civility laws he writes ultimately benefit the regular people who make up what he calls the "silent majority." But critics like Fox wonder if the motive behind these laws is to "make Seattle safe for investors."

It's certainly true that Sidran's proposals are supported wholeheartedly by developers. In fact, some of the city's most energetic "neighborhood activists" don't live in the neighborhoods they supposedly represent, but do the bidding for builders and investors. One example is Pioneer Square activist Ellie Schroeder, Sidran's resolute ally, who often shows up to testify in favor of new laws aimed at street drunks and music clubs. Schroeder, who is Chair of the Pioneer Square Community Council's Public Safety Committee and Co-Chair of the West Precinct Advisory Council, doesn't live in the neighborhood, but works as a project manager for Samis, the real-estate giant that owns more than 50 properties in Pioneer Square and throughout Seattle.

Schroeder downplays the tension between those looking for a more orderly downtown and those who value Seattle's nightlife. "We can all live together," she says.

That remains to be seen.

Support The Stranger