The Halfway Point Between Developers and Venues

Tonight I watched the Austin Music Commission hold their regular monthly meeting, conveniently broadcast live over the internet.  When the video is ready, you can see it on Channel 6.  One of the items on their agenda was to discuss the “cultural impact of noise in [the] downtown area.”

All of the members in attendance thought it made sense for the City to encourage, or possibly even require, the use of higher performing windows (“thicker windows,” they called them) in downtown buildings that were expected to be exposed to downtown noise, particularly related to music venues.  I think this is a good idea (with some qualifiers, read on).

When searching for ways to express their idea in material terms, they got as far as saying that mitigation (“thicker” windows) should be based on the allowable noise of surrounding venues according to the noise ordinance.  In most cities, this would be a perfectly sensible thing to say.  The problem is Austin’s ordinance is source-oriented rather than receiver-oriented.  If you have ever spoken to me about Austin’s ordinance, or read any of my earlier articles, you know that this is my number one complaint about our noise ordinance, and something that sets us apart from most other cities.

The commission was also looking for ideas on ways the venues could meet half-way with the developers.  They noted that Don Pitts and the Music Office work regularly with venue owners to lessen noise impacts.  By every report, Mr. Pitts does a great a job in communicating with venues and works very hard on finding reasonable solutions, but relying on the Music office is itself not an objective determination of where venues should meet developers, of what the half-way point is.

It turns out it’s very easy to define a half-way point in terms that are completely objective and simple to explain.  A half-way point can be defined as a maximum sound level a venue is allowed to cause at a nearby property.

The first step is to rearrange Austin’s noise ordinance with receiver-oriented sound level limits (or to change the permitting system to use receiver-based venue specific levels).  Under the current system, a producer of noise is required to maintain a certain sound level at their own property line (source-oriented).  This treats all venues as if they’re the same distance from their neighbors.  A source-oriented system provides no reward to venue owners who make sensible decisions about their venue’s location, or orientation, or any sound mitigating features they may install to protect their neighbors from excessive noise.  Likewise, the source-oriented system is no more restrictive on venues that are set up poorly with respect to noise control.  There’s no legal incentive to try to be a good neighbor.

A receiver-oriented noise ordinance specifies the sound level limits you are allowed to create as measured at your neighbor’s property, and according to the type of neighbor you have (i.e residential, commercial, and industrial, where residential would have the most restrictive limits).  This system implicitly rewards venue owners who choose their locations carefully and arrange their venues in ways that are conscious about their neighbor’s noise exposure.  Noise mitigation measures such as orienting a stage away from a residential building or constructing a noise wall result in effectively higher permitted sound levels inside the venue.  This means the person operating the mixer has greater freedom to turn things up if the performance demands it.

On the developer’s side of the equation, the half-way point (in the form of a sound level limit) provides a reference point for buildings to be designed with respect to noise.  Knowing what the maximum expected outdoor sound levels are, an architect (or the architect’s acoustical sub-consultant) can specify the appropriate walls, windows, and doors to meet an acceptable indoor noise level.  The acceptable indoor level can be set by building code.

Some cities attempt to over-simplify this process by defining a one-size-fits-all minimum window STC.  This is a mistake.  Interior sound levels due to sound energy transmission through a window depend on the size of the window, the size of the room, and the furnishings inside the room (how absorptive or echoic the room is).  Very large windows in rooms with all hard surfaces require higher STC values than small windows in plush rooms to achieve the same indoor sound levels.

Implementing these requirements would create a reward system for developers.  When developers are willing to do the work to find sensible building designs, they are rewarded with less expensive ways of protecting the residents of their buildings from noise.  The noise arriving at their windows will be a known quantity, so appropriate building elements can be chosen in the design phase.  This is much less expensive than lawsuits and retrofits.

Declaring a half-way point in the form of a receiver-oriented noise ordinance that is written with thought and research while requiring developers to meet a maximum interior noise level is the most elegant and fair way to encourage both developers and venue owners to respect one another while providing a framework where everyone can prosper.  Both sides can proceed confidently, knowing there’s an objective measure to show that they’re doing their part.

Appropriate sound level limits (both indoor and outdoor) can be established based on consideration of relevant factors, including:

  • Sleep disturbance research
  • Construction costs research
  • A survey of existing sound levels, including consideration of contributing venues
  • Comparison to successful noise ordinances from other cities
  • Importance of live music in the city’s identity
  • Research into sound levels typical Austin residents are willing to endure, as compared to other cities

Building an apartment with huge windows downtown might provide for outstanding views that people are willing to pay a lot of money for, but it’s absolutely not sensible for anyone to expect such an apartment to be quiet at night, unless they’re willing to pay a lot of money for high-STC windows.  It’s unfair to expect downtown music venues to turn things down to accommodate such poor design.

Similarly, no sensible person would believe that setting up a roof-top bar with no sound containment across the street from an apartment building will not cause residents of that building to lose sleep.  It’s especially distasteful when these types of actions are defended by declaring any complainers haters of live music.  This is also unfair.

I think the Music Commission is absolutely on the right track with the discussion they had this evening.  I hope to see their ideas fleshed out into thoughtful and meaningful changes in the way our city considers noise.

3 Comments

  1. Joshua,

    First, I want to applaud your comprehensive and professional approach to the issue of Noise & Austin. Your most recent post, analyzing the Nutty Brown Cafe sound issues, is excellent.

    You have my complete support in continuing your efforts to educate all parties; the public, business owners (especially venue managers), and developers as to the facts, and workings of the current state of affairs, especially in the area of analyzing the extremely bad and broken Noise & Sound Ordinance, in it’s current form.

    I’ll point out the following, however, as to what, in personal opinion, is the real problem, in spite of the Music Commissions great work. I feel that if this central problem is addressed, it would make your work, my work, and the Music Commission’s work, much more effective and beneficial to everyone concerned.

    At the following links, you can read certain facts, along with my analysis of why the City Council is moving (albeit, as slow as molasses), in the exact opposite direction of the Music Commission’s Recommendations to Council (which is the limit of the Music Commission’s power.

    “DANA Letter to the Mayor & Council” – http://goo.gl/y2pD4

    “Disingenuous Politickin’” – http://austincitypermits.com/?p=4170

    “Mistake on Decibel Reading Location” – http://austincitypermits.com/?p=4510

    In the posts, above, it is clear as to why, on Feb 17th of this year, Council staff basically “screwed the pooch” and set back Austin’s Noise & Sound Ordinance several years

    The letter was from DANA (Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association) who were, at the time, very much “at the stakeholder’s table” of the backdoor meetings being called by certain members of the Council. I am of the opinion that DANA was overzealous, drunk on the attention and support they were getting from Council and Staff, and simply overstepped the boundary of just what an organization can insert, of it’s own agenda, directly into the Code.

    “Inadvertently … left in place?” – http://austincitypermits.com/?p=4526

    That Ordinance included the provision that: ““The decibel limits prescribed under this section must be measured … from the location of the sound equipment on the property or site where the permit is issued.”

    This meant that the current 70 dB (Restaurant) and 85 dB (Cocktail Lounges & non-Restaurant venues) decibel level limits would hence forth be measured in front of the speakers!

    I was told that Staff didn’t have an Ordinance ready, and with mere weeks before SxSW, a Council Member ordered, “We need something now. Put something together, and get it on the Agenda!”. The Mea Culpa in the form of a Memo by the Council’s staff lawyer, can be read here:

    http://goo.gl/5nk7I

    As a result of my efforts to quickly call attention the mistake, an additional ordinance was passed (!) 2 weeks later, in order to rid the Code of the inappropriate “mistake”.

    “Location of dB Readings Changed” – http://austincitypermits.com/?p=4494

    However, if you’ll notice, several other “suggestions” from the Dana letter have remained in the Code, as of that one rushed Ordinance.

    The Music Commission, as well as the City’s Music Office have been doing an excellent job of communicating these damaging inclusions, starting as recently as 6 months ago, so far, absolutely NO action has been taken by Council … and that’s my point.

    Respectfully,
    Gary Etie

    • Joshua,

      In addition, here is my post of August 9, 2011, linked below, to further reinforce the argument that the Music Commission discussions, as well as the discussions you point out in this post, although appropriate praise for the excellent work they are doing, is not where the problem exist.

      My point is: The City Council continues to ignore the Music Commission’s suggestions, and, in fact, is causing more problems, every time that they do finally take action.

      What good is excellent work going to do, if the City Council at best, moves at a snail’s pace, to get anything done about an a section of the Code that they and their Staff have messed up, annually, for years now (usually right before SxSW, causing everyone to scramble, at the last minute), and at worst, entirely ignores the recommendation of the Music Commission to the City Council (the limit of the Music Commission’s power)

      Tuesday, August 9, 2011 :
      Tonight: Special Called Meeting
      of the Austin Music Commission

      The following is a link to my post, from that same night:
      http://austincitypermits.com/?p=5490

      Respectfully,
      Gary Etie

    • Hi Gary, thanks for that good information. The frequent, haphazard changes to the ordinance that continue to this day appear to be the reason it is disjointed, self-contradictory, and almost devoid of any sensible thought with regard to acoustics. Frequent changes by people without even a basic understanding of noise and noise measurements have produced an ugly, non-functional chimera that no one is happy with.

      My hope is that at some point City Council can be convinced to wipe everything clean and bring in an acoustical consultant with experience writing ordinances to provide the basis for a fresh start. A foundation of good acoustics should be laid down first, with the details adjusted to taste based on the specific needs of the city. But how to convince them it’s worth the time and expense?

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