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  1. Life & Culture

One St. Petersburg man’s quest to quiet a condo’s parking garage bell

A parking garage warning bell in downtown is ‘noise pollution,’ if you ask Fred Sherman.
Fred Sherman laughs while showing off a decibel meter outside of the parking garage bell at the Ovation condo on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
Fred Sherman laughs while showing off a decibel meter outside of the parking garage bell at the Ovation condo on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Fred Sherman has got to be this city’s foremost expert on the sounds of local parking garages.

The retired gold supplier from New York’s Westchester County was dressed for a golf lesson when he demonstrated this arcane knowledge on a recent afternoon tour downtown.

“The Hyatt has a voice that says ‘Attention, vehicle exiting,’” he said. “Signature Place also has a light that says, ‘Car coming.’ ... The McNulty here has sort of a flashing device with some audio.”

He pointed out several other parking garage alarms, meant to alert pedestrians that a car is exiting. He noted which garages have no warnings. Such systems are not a requirement, but they can protect against lawsuits.

Sherman ended his stroll under the main attraction — a grey, metal bell that you might picture hanging in an old high school, mounted over the sidewalk on First Street NE. A Volvo pulled up to a gate and waited to exit a garage. The bell wailed like an alarm clock in an old Looney Tunes short.

“See?” Sherman asked. The Volvo pulled out, and the bell rang again. “Two times! And this goes on all day and night. It sounds like the inmates are escaping.”

The bell is mounted on the Ovation, an exclusive Beach Drive condo tower where units go for more than $2.5 million. Sherman hears the bell from his 31st-floor condo at One St. Petersburg, a different condo tower a block south, where units typically go for more than $1.5 million. He wants it to stop.

“It’s noise pollution, I’d almost use the word evil,” he said, “And once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing it. People say, ‘Fred, why’d you point it out to me?’”

Over two years, Sherman says, he tried everything to get someone with authority over the bell to have a conversation with him to discuss a change to a quieter option. “Maybe a nice buzzer,” he said.

He has tried various means of contacting Ovation’s condo board, including sending messages through acquaintances he has made who live there. He enlisted the president of his condo association for some building-to-building diplomacy with their president. Calls were not returned.

He tracked down multiple property managers and their bosses. Nothing. Lawyers turned him away. Police told him there was nothing they could do. The bell does not appear to violate the city’s noise ordinance and seems to serve a legitimate safety purpose, St. Petersburg police told the Tampa Bay Times.

Sherman surveyed neighbors and people who work nearby. Yes, they were annoyed. No, they weren’t going to do much. (Former St. Petersburg Arts Alliance director John Collins told the Times the ringing was so annoying in his office across the street from the Ovation, he worried for his and his coworker’s health until he moved out.)

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Fred Sherman pictured on the balcony of his 31st-floor condo at One St. Petersburg overlooking the water and the Ovation condo on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
Fred Sherman pictured on the balcony of his 31st-floor condo at One St. Petersburg overlooking the water and the Ovation condo on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Desperate for info, Sherman befriended a maintenance man he sometimes saw emptying trash cans outside. He tried questioning Ovation residents as they left the garage. Some got upset.

Had they all been warned not to talk to him, he wondered. Inexplicably, a clear, plastic lock box showed up and encased the bell.

“I think,” he said, turning conspiratorial, “they put that up to stop me from vandalizing it.”

The Ovation Owners Association and the company that manages the building declined to speak to the Times about the bell.

None of this is like him, Sherman said, describing himself as a “Deadhead” who would “rather smoke a joint and sit on the couch” than confront someone.

He expects noise in the downtown area. Traffic, bars, music festivals, construction, all fine. Even parking garage alarms are fine. But this bell is, he believes, unnecessarily grating. The law is one thing, he said, “but what about just being a good neighbor?”

“This is kind of the epitome of rich, white people problems, isn’t it?” asked Matthew Weidner, a real estate attorney in St. Petersburg and former president of a downtown neighborhood association, who is not involved, but was amused.

Sherman understands that criticism. He knows it’s a grievance of Larry David-esque proportions. But he said he is finally, in his retirement, taking a stand against needless annoyances.

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• • •

Part of the issue with noise pollution in cities is that few people study it or think about it, said Daniel Steele, co-founder of the Sound In the City lab at McGill University in Montreal. When people do think about urban noise, it’s already a problem. They’re usually looking for ways to muffle it.

Steele hopes his research can inspire public policy and design that considers the soundscape upfront. He takes city planners, politicians and architects on “soundwalks,” a term coined in the 1970s by the first acoustic ecologists. Basically, you walk around a place and prioritize listening, which is not what humans usually do.

“It’s an ear-opening experience,” Steele said, and it can give people a deeper sense of place. Anyone can do it.

There’s a long way to go, he said, but some designs have gotten better in recent years. You may have noticed those Amazon delivery trucks that make a sort of hoarse woosh-woosh sound when they back up, instead of beeping loudly. They still alert people in the truck’s path, but don’t aggravate people a block away.

Steele said research shows that an annoying, intermittent and unexpected sound can have physiological effects like raising someone’s blood pressure. He said it’s common for people who hear nuisance sounds to have trouble figuring out who’s responsible for remedying them, which can add to their stress.

Jeff Terrozas owns PASS Signs, which makes parking garage warning systems that use a voice to tell people a car is approaching, and have volume controls and timers that quiet them at night. He’s frequently called on to replace systems with old-school, mechanical bells.

“When I designed them, I didn’t want them to be a nuisance,” he said. “Because then people start ignoring them.”

A bell mounted outside the Ovation condo building's parking garage in downtown St. Petersburg.
A bell mounted outside the Ovation condo building's parking garage in downtown St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

If you have a noise issue in America, though, you probably won’t be satisfied waiting for better public policy or better design, said environmental psychologist Arline Bronzaft. In her 50-year career, she’s published several books and lots of research on the impact of noise, starting with noisy trains passing a school that severely impacted children’s ability to learn.

She has served as an adviser on noise for five New York City mayors and remains a board member for GrowNYC (formerly the Council on the Environment of New York City).

You might expect an academic like Bronzaft to let her research speak for itself, while others figure out how to use it practically. But when New York residents reach out about noise through GrowNYC’s website, there’s a good chance Bronzaft will personally contact their noisy neighbor to ask them to quiet down.

“It’s the only way anything gets done is to talk to people directly,” she said, “and I like to actually help people.”

She has dealt with rickety air conditioners and people who installed a basketball court in an apartment bedroom. She convinced people to move their bed away from the wall so their sex wouldn’t keep their neighbor up.

St. Petersburg residents made more than 30,000 calls to police in the past 10 years over nuisance noise, police records show. The pandemic didn’t curb the calls. There were 3,668 calls in 2020, close to 200 more than in 2019. This year is on track for slightly fewer. The vast majority of those calls do not warrant even a written report from police. Of 2,982 calls this year, only 31 became police reports.

Related: No more anonymous code complaints about neighbors, state law says

Both former president Weidner and the current downtown neighborhood association president, Karen Carmichael, said they think noise in St. Petersburg is less of a concern among residents than it was years ago, when there were prominent fights over the sounds of nightlife and proposed changes to the sound ordinance.

“It was kind of the old guard back then, and just a few, very vocal residents,” Weidner said. “Now, people who move to downtown are doing it because they want that lifestyle.”

• • •

The sounds of downtown are the Coast Guard bugle playing reveille at 8 a.m., the helicopter landing on the roof of Bayfront Health and partiers riding past on the pedal pub. There’s the guy who cranks Purple Rain from his bicycle. There’s the flock of feral Nanday parakeets and the “unique and ominous sound” of fast winds “moving through the rails of the pier.” The whooshing “water wall” at Signature Place. That “stupid” rat rod that revs its engine on Central Avenue. Sirens. Construction, construction, construction.

These all were listed on a Facebook post asking residents what they consider the signature sounds of downtown, and their favorites.

“The Insane and Incessant school bell ringing from the Ovation building, 100′s of times a day, 24/7,” wrote Fred Sherman below them.

Sherman paid a lawyer $5,000 to file a nuisance lawsuit against the Ovation owners association, claiming it has affected his sleep and his ability to enjoy his condo. He finally heard back from someone.

In a response filed in civil court, the association’s lawyers said removing the alarm would be “a grand disservice to the public as the alarm is used to avoid catastrophic collisions between outgoing cars and individuals traversing on the sidewalk.” It also said Sherman failed to show that the bell “was more than a trifling annoyance or discomfort,” as required by law.

A judge on Nov. 19 referred the case to private mediation.

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