Downtown bar owners want the city to amend its noise ordinance to allow higher decibel levels for the influx of sound-pumping establishments.
Owners contend the current ordinance doesn’t reflect downtown’s transformation into an entertainment hot spot.
But neighbors fear raising the decibels for bars could turn downtown into a perpetual party zone and diminish their quality of life — just as Tucson is trying to attract more people to live downtown.
Before the friction escalates into a full-blown problem, bar owners set out to strike a balance between college students inclined to party to the wee hours and downtown dwellers looking for a good night’s sleep.
A few weeks ago, the bar owners started holding meetings with city officials, neighborhood groups, business owners and others to hash out a solution.
“We see there are more and more residents coming into the downtown area and there are more businesses. We’re just looking for a way that we all can continue to grow this area together constructively and cooperatively,” said John Jacobs, owner of Maker House and chair of the Merchant Council Leadership Committee. “Right now, we have uncertainty and not a very good way to measure and to enforce. We want to be good neighbors. We want to be able to stay ahead of this by self-policing.”
The tentative proposal that’s emerged thus far would exempt businesses within a city-approved entertainment area from the existing noise ordinance, which limits sounds that reach a residential property from exceeding 70 decibels between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and 62 decibels from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Jacobs said the current code is impractical to enforce because it requires police officers to record the decibel level at the home of the person complaining, not the place where the noise is produced.
He said this prevents bar owners from self-enforcing and places an undue burden on police and residents.
An adjustment is needed soon to the ordinance to benefit both prospective residents and future businesses seeking to relocate to the city’s increasingly vibrant downtown core, he said.
“There needs to be a standard,” Jacobs said. “So what we’re asking for is let’s have a practical way to enforce a noise ordinance that’s reasonable that everybody can agree on, and that allows us to all grow in the downtown area together.”
The proposed change, which is based on an Austin, Texas ordinance, would allow a bar to produce sound up to 85 decibels between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m. and prohibit any audible noise past its property line after 2 a.m.
As part of the proposal, decibel readings would be recorded at the property where the noise is produced, not at the home where the owner complains that the noise is excessive.
Jacobs said this would provide bar owners a practical way to determine if they are exceeding noise standards and to adjust accordingly.
The proposal would amend the noise ordinance only within a tentative entertainment area bounded by Interstate 10 to the west, Sixth Street to the north, Toole Avenue to the east and 15th Street to the south, and also taking in the North Fourth Avenue bars.
some quiet, too
Some downtown residents said the city doesn’t need a new ordinance. It just needs to enforce the one it has.
“On numerous occasions, I’ve been awakened by loud music at midnight or later. It seems that some venues believe music should get louder when it gets later,” Phyllis Factor, who lives just over one block south of Broadway on Third Avenue, wrote in an email. “There’s no need for louder noise later at night.”
Factor said she’s all for a vibrant downtown, as long as things quiet down after 10 or 11 at night.
Jacobs said higher decibels don’t translate into more noise in the neighborhoods. “Eighty-five decibels bleeds down to about 62 decibels at about 100 feet,” he said. “This is a way we can all move together that is enforceable and reasonable. It’s not higher noises.”
Although high frequencies can be measured and dissipate relatively quickly, the lower ones pose a different conundrum.
“On the tenant side, the real problem is with the bass,” said Art Wadlund, owner of One East Broadway, one of the first new residential complexes built during downtown’s recent renaissance.
Wadlund said residents accept that living downtown will come with additional noise, but there should be limits to what they endure.
“Downtown people get it with the Cinco de Mayos and the Second Saturdays. They embrace that. But indiscriminate, two o’clock in the morning bass where your dishes are literally rattling doesn’t work,” Wadlund said.
He said while it’s not a big problem now, it’s something that could get worse in the future.
Jacobs said it’s an issue the Merchant Council members are wrestling with. At this point, they haven’t found any precedent that deals with low frequency in other cities nor can they find an instrument that measures it.
Jacobs said the matter is already a part of future meetings and he is hopeful it will be worked out with the other issues before any proposed ordinance changes go before the City Council.
City officials hope so, too.
“We’re attracting a whole new demographic to live in the downtown core, and that’s happening by design. What they deserve is the quiet enjoyment of their homes at 1 a.m., and not have to sleep with earplugs in because bar owners can’t control their DJ’s,” said Councilman Steve Kozachik, whose ward covers downtown. “I’m all for looking at finding some middle ground in this, but the collateral damage will not be putting the brakes on the development successes we’re having downtown.”
Downtown Tucson Partnership CEO Michael Keith said by engaging everyone early on, the Merchant Council has set the tone for how downtown’s “urban village” will tackle issues in the future.
“This is our first big test in how we come together as a community,” Keith said. “And it’s been an amazingly inclusive process. It’s the kind of process everybody talks about and I’m very confident we’re going to come out with a workable arrangement here.”