As Slog readers and downtown denizens now know, the loud, continuous, and extremely irritating noise people hear while strolling down 3rd Avenue most evenings is emanating from a “Mosquito” device installed in the entryway of the Kress IGA, a supermarket located on 3rd and Pike St.
Store manager John Weller partly justifies tormenting the public with the noise by arguing that vagrants hanging around the supermarket's door is “just not safe for people who work here or adjacent business."
While there’s limited evidence to support his safety concerns, there’s compelling evidence that the Mosquito’s annoying, ear-splitting noise is actually pretty bad for adjacent businesses.
Benjamin Gaft runs Turcos Last Stand, a sidewalk newsstand located directly across the street from the supermarket. Gant bought the tiny shop in 2003 and named the place after its original founder, Frank Turco, a major voice in Seattle’s labor movement. Turco presided as the president of the Seattle Newsboys Union, and he worked the newsstand himself for 50 years before his death in 1965.
For the last several years, Gant and his staff have been distributing newspapers and selling coffee, soda, and salted pretzels to passersby, carrying on a tradition that’s been alive on that corner since the 1910s. The shop is open three days a week from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m., “Or, if I’m working, until the machine comes on,” Gaft said over the phone.
The machine first came on in February of this year, Gaft claims.
From February through April the noise was at its loudest, and Gaft says the store would run the machine at all hours of the day.
The sound “irritated” Gaft’s customers, but since they were only passing through it didn’t bother them as much as it bothered him. Constant exposure to the noise made him feel “anxious” and “nauseous,” he said. “I tried not to let it ruin me, but it would cut through the music I’d play to cover it. I’d be burning popcorn and pretzels and stuff because it would distract me,” he added.
Seattle officials have recorded the device emitting a high-pitched, continuous noise measuring between 60-2 decibels, but, with an unofficial recorder, I've measured the device swinging between 75 and 80 decibels. The machine's installation guidelines say it can pump out over 100 decibels, which is the sonic equivalent of standing in the middle of a night club with the music blasting. During CIA interrogations at black sites, agents blare music "not to exceed 79 decibels," according to a 2005 memo from the Senate Intelligence Committee's Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, AKA the torture report.
When Gaft complained about the noise to a manager at Kress IGA, he says the manager told him it was out of his hands. The building owner, a California-based property manger called Retail Opportunity Investments Corp., had installed the device, and they were the only ones who could un-install it.
Gaft said he complained to police officers, but they didn’t care.
A representative for the Seattle Police Department has not responded to The Stranger’s request for comment.
The issue came to a head in early May, when the city ordered Gaft to clean up some graffiti on his newsstand or else face a fine. As Gaft started cleaning the graffiti with the noise of the Mosquito buzzing in his ear, he had a hard time reconciling the city’s priorities. “They wouldn’t protect me from audio torture, but now they’re worried about graffiti,” he said.
So on May 2, Gaft wrote an email complaining about the Mosquito to Mayor Jenny Durkan and every Seattle City Council Member. “I'm contacting you because police say it is not illegal. And it appears we might have to pass some legislation to stop this kind of thing from spreading,” he wrote. He also pointed out what he sees as the supermarket’s hypocrisy: “It is absolutely ridiculous that a business that sells millions of dollars of alcohol each year has the audacity to use anti rodent technology on everyone in the vicinity just to target the people who are addicted to their products.”
On May 8, Nick Jones, an aide in City Council Member Kshama Sawant’s office, replied to Gaft at Sawant’s request. Jones promised to contact the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI) to try and shut down the noise “on the grounds it breaks the noise rules.”
The next day Jones relayed an email he’d received from Shauna Larsen at SDCI, saying that the department’s noise abatement team had worked with building management to make “suggestions about adjusting the device” following “several noise complaints emanating from the Kress Building” in April.
Contrary to what SDCI spokesperson Bryan Stevens told me last week, the department ended up working out a deal with the Seattle Police Department and the Kress IGA owner to “lower the volume [of the Mosquito] and limit the hours of use to 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” according to the email from Larsen. After that negotiation, SDCI also had staff “stop by when they are out in the field to see if they are continuing to maintain the adjusted hours and volumes.”
Stevens has not returned my email requesting that he explain why he claimed SDCI neither "discussed” nor “reached” such a deal when they did. A representative from SPD has also not returned several requests for comment about this negotiation.
Gaft says IGA didn’t hold up their end of the bargain—which, incidentally, didn’t involve his input and which he didn’t think was fair—and that they continue to turn on the machine earlier than 7 p.m.
Though he had plans to expand the newsstand last summer, the constant noise zaps his motivation, and it’s gotten to the point where he closes up shop every time someone at Kress IGA flips the Mosquito's switch.
“Yesterday they turned it on at 5:30 p.m.,” Gaft said on Tuesday. “Last week it was 4 p.m. It seems pointless to put emotional or mental energy into the newsstand knowing that I’ll hang a bunch of pretzels and they’ll turn on the device, and I just wasted $5 in pretzels.”
Gaft complained about the noise to Sawant’s office again back in October. In an email, Jones said he last contacted Nathan Torgelson at SDCI about the issue on October 14, asking them to “ensure at least that Kress follow the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. established agreement.” Torgelson said the department was working with the Community Policing Commission and the Kress owner on the issue.
Gaft also wrote to Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, who responded to him with a nice summary of state and city noise ordinance rules, and also a list of options Gaft could pursue, many of which he’s already pursued.
When asked if the device is working to disperse vagrants the way IGA intends it to, Gaft let out a heavy sigh. “It doesn’t seem to do anything at all except irritate my customers,” he said. “It’s downtown. There’s enough pain and suffering down here—you don’t need to add misery.”