Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Opinion

A downtown 'boom' St. Petersburg residents can live without

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Twinkling trees along open waterfront vistas lure visitors to the park. Trendy sidewalk cafes overflow with patrons for dinner or cocktails. Art museums and galleries offer eclectic and erotic shows. All are signs of progress in a city once dubbed "Sleepy St. Pete."

Extending the closing time of downtown bars in 2010 was a part of that progress.

But a growing chorus of downtown residents are complaining about the late-night noise levels coming from the bars, particularly Tryst at 240 Beach Drive NE and Push Ultra Lounge at 128 Third St. S. Those bars neighbor the Cloisters and McNulty Lofts condominiums, respectively.

"Of late, they have begun to put on very loud music at night, going until the wee hours," said Emil A. Pavone, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Residents Civic Association.

When music is blaring from rooftop bars, "the sound carries and it can be hell for the neighbors," said the Bayfront Tower resident.

Noise isn't a new issue for downtown. A new wrinkle is that police aren't enforcing the city's noise ordinance, residents say.

"I have to call the St. Pete police every Friday and Saturday because after 1 a.m. they (bars) have decided to increase the sound and the bass," wrote Robert Rowen.

It has gotten louder in the past six months, he said.

Rowen, who lives at McNulty Lofts, said police officers told him they are limited to asking bar owners to turn the music down because the city has decided there is no enforceable statute.

But that may be left to interpretation.

"(Police) can still write citations if it meets different noise standards," said Don Gibson, St. Petersburg police legal adviser.

"Any standard that relies on 'plainly audible' is deemed to be unconstitutional until the state Supreme Court makes a decision," he said, but added that police can enforce the ordinance under the "loud and raucous" standard.

Some city officials argue that noise is part of city life. But more and more residents are growing weary of hearing that tune.

Is there no recourse for loud music after 11 p.m.?

"Businesses have a certain right to make a certain level of noise," said Mark Winn, chief assistant city attorney.

Certain sounds are allowed at certain times, he said. "Our issue is, the standard that we have in our ordinance isn't enforceable. We have a separate standard based on loud and raucous that's a little more subjective," Winn said. "It's not really as standardized. It takes into account other issues."

Few would argue that a lively downtown entertainment district is vital to attracting visitors.

But the city's reluctance to enforce the ordinance has more to do with striking out in the courts.

"The city was involved in extensive litigation in the '80s concerning Jannus Landing," Winn said. "That's when the city put in the sound meters and decibel levels to determine what was too loud."

In 2007, there were complaints of loud music at Fresco's Waterfront Bistro at 300 Second Ave. NE. The city lost its challenge in court and later adopted the plainly audible standard, which is part of Florida law, allowing police officers to determine what is "too loud." That standard is based on time of day, distance, zoning district and sound generator and is subject to a few exceptions, Winn said.

The law bans "plainly audible" noise from a motor vehicle at a distance of 25 feet or more, but does not apply to businesses or political speech, which have a higher First Amendment protection.

"The constitutionality of the law is now in court," Winn said.

Meanwhile, there's a growing trend of rooftop and outdoor bars downtown that's cause for restless nights for some residents along Beach Drive.

Vue 19, a hip new club on the 19th floor of the Bank of America building, which opened a week ago, has drawn the ire of neighboring cliff dwellers.

With the historic Grayl's Hotel at 340 Beach Drive NE set to embark on $6 million in renovations, and adding a rooftop lounge, there are clearly more venues — and noise complaints — to come.

The city seems conflicted in its desire to have a downtown with high-end condos and increased foot traffic for businesses.

Condo owners say they realize they must coexist with neighboring businesses, but they argue that they didn't sign up for booming bar speakers in the wee hours of the morning.

"I would like to see sound levels lowered to be not ear-splitting at any time and turned off at 11 p.m.," said Pavone, whose civic association represents more than 1,000 downtown residents.

In the meantime, city officials must find a happy medium until the court makes a decision.

"I understand that the city wants to encourage business — we all want to encourage business — but not at the expense of the people who live here and pay the majority of the taxes,'' Pavone said.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or [email protected]

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