Noise divides residents and businesses downtown
Published: Friday, February 28, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 5:17 p.m.
It's 11 p.m. Thursday in mid-February at the courtyard of The Backyard bar in downtown Gainesville. A crowd, bundled against the cold, sips Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys.
On stage, an all-female rock band is playing. Their music is a collision of thumping drums and churning guitars.
Several times a week, this outdoor venue co-owned by Boca Fiesta Cafe and the Palomino Pool Hall brings live music and DJs to a pocket of the Sun Center tucked away on the west side of the Hippodrome Theatre.
Boca Fiesta co-owners Jacob Ihde and Warren Oakes say The Backyard gives local talent some exposure, draws patrons to neighboring restaurants and brings in needed money for businesses that have to pay downtown rent and several dozen employees, who rely on their paychecks to get by.
Now, the venue is at the center of a clash over noise complaints and the sometimes inherent conflict between the two major ingredients of a thriving downtown — residents and nightlife.
The Backyard's troubles involve four violations of the city's noise ordinance since June. In addition to paying one $250 fine and two $500 fines as the citations mounted, the owners now face a mandatory hearing in county court for the fourth violation.
Ihde and Oakes say they are uncertain whether they'll be able to continue hosting shows or have to scale back to the point it will jeopardize their business's viability.
Ihde said they already have scaled back, canceling an open mic night and ending a show early, giving partial refunds to the crowd.
The violations have come after the Gainesville Police Department, responding to complaints, determined that the noise from The Backyard was plainly audible at a distance of 200 feet from the property line. All of the citations involved complaints from one resident who lives above Starbucks Coffee on the southwest corner of the Union Street Station condominium building.
Oakes said he feels someone who moves downtown should be prepared to deal with more noise in the city's urban center.
"This is the heart of downtown Gainesville right here and if you don't want to hear the heartbeat, don't live next to the heart," Oakes said.
Daniel Vazquez said he was prepared for noise from the hustle and bustle of downtown when he moved last summer into Union Street Station. Vazquez, a local lawyer, said that late on weeknights, when he might have a deposition early the next morning, the only noise that keeps him from sleeping comes from the music at The Backyard.
The noise disturbs him despite his sound-insulated windows, he said. Vazquez said he has filed numerous noise complaints but doesn't think he has ever contacted police about loud music on a Friday or Saturday night.
Vazquez still hears the noise on weekend nights, but he doesn't have to work the next day so he doesn't complain, he said.
In his mind, Vazquez said the issue is not one resident but one business.
"If they want a special event, they should go through the permit process," he said. "It's unfair that they feel they don't have to follow the law. The law is there to protect the health and welfare of the people downtown."
The clash over noise between residents and nightlife is not new or unique to Gainesville, said Ruth Steiner, a professor of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Florida.
When downtown areas were struggling in the 1980s and 1990s after businesses moved out to more suburban areas, they turned more toward live music and nightlife to take advantage of their central location and to fill empty building space, Steiner said.
Gainesville was one city that followed that model, Steiner said. The downtown clubs and music venues became a "part of the economic engine of the city" and helped revitalize downtowns, she said.
Over time, residents — another key ingredient of a thriving downtown — began to move in. Clashes between the sometimes incompatible land uses follow, Steiner said.
"If the good thing is we are creating this urban downtown, the bad thing is you are going to have more conflicts between residents" and businesses, Steiner said.
Larry Hamilton knows those clashes well. Hamilton has lived on Northwest Third Avenue in the Pleasant Street neighborhood north of downtown for 30 years and also has several rental properties in the neighborhood.
Hamilton said that over the decades, he has had persistent issues with loud music and noise from downtown bars and clubs carrying over to his neighborhood and keeping him up to 2 a.m. or beyond.
Hamilton, the president of the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Association, said late-night noise disturbs his residential area and has driven some of his tenants to move. He said downtown nightspots should confine their noise to their businesses.
In 1992, Hamilton sued Congo Craig's, an open-air rooftop nightclub that once occupied 201 W. University Ave., over noise issues.
More recently, he filed complaints against The Sky, a now-defunct nightclub that occupied the same rooftop space. That club faced several noise violations before it closed. Its former location remains vacant.
Hamilton also pointed to the now-closed Fubar on West University as a noise culprit.
A few blocks to the south, the longtime music venue now known as the High Dive began facing noise complaints almost immediately after the Palms condominiums were built next to it in 2008.
Just south of University Avenue on Southwest Second Street, The Motor Room, formerly known as Spank Nightclub, has received two noise complaints over the past several months.
Owner James Rountree paid the fine for the first citation but said he plans to challenge the second in court. He said the complaints come during the club's "bread and butter" event: Saturday night's popular Neon Liger dance party.
"For the last six years we've been open and doing this party, and now it's a problem," Rountree said. "People's jobs are at risk over this. If they know every Saturday night we are busy, anyone can call in a complaint."
The City Commission is expected to consider revisions to its noise ordinance in upcoming months. At the request of GPD, a University of Florida student named Jared Anderson conducted a study, including a slew of noise measurements, under the supervision of a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. Some of the recommendations in the resulting report include increasing the allowable decibel thresholds before a violation may be issued under that section of the ordinance and changing the distance for determining "plainly audible" noise from 200 feet from the property line to a city block, which would be defined as 300 feet.
The recommendations also include extending the weekend hours for permitted special events from 1 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. The report also recommended giving the owner or operator of a business the right to be present when an officer is taking sound measurements in response to a noise complaint against the business.
Downtown developer Ken McGurn is also a resident of the city's core. He and his wife live in a condo in Union Street Station, which their company built in 2000.
As a residential and commercial developer, McGurn said he lives downtown for the activity and accepts that things are louder there than in the suburbia.
"I live downtown because I want to be where the action is," McGurn said. "The noise doesn't bother me."
Back at The Backyard, Mark Scohier is attending his first show at the outdoor stage since the 1990s, when the location was the now-storied live music venue the Hardback Cafe.
Scohier said the space "still has some of that energy flowing around it." He said he thinks it would be a shame to see noise issues hamper the ability to put on shows.
"I think when you're living in this part of town, you have to come to expect this sort of thing," he said.
On this night, the concert is a "ladies band roulette" in conjunction with the local Vfest, an annual week of women's music and arts events. Bands assembled at random a month earlier were playing together in public for the first time.
"I like it that they are supporting local musicians getting together and being creative," concertgoer Hollie Greer said. "The fact that anyone is complaining about the noise is sad because it is an amazing thing they are doing bringing these creative people together."