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Noise complaints build with downtown St. Petersburg nightlife

Yana Baldwin, 23, from left, Natalia Klein, 24, and Emily Crawford, 22, play a giant Jenga game at MacDinton’s in downtown St. Petersburg last month. The city’s noise ordinances have struggled to keep up with its evolving nightlife.
Yana Baldwin, 23, from left, Natalia Klein, 24, and Emily Crawford, 22, play a giant Jenga game at MacDinton’s in downtown St. Petersburg last month. The city’s noise ordinances have struggled to keep up with its evolving nightlife.
Published Nov. 2, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG

Joanne and Albert Scafati dread the night, when darkness falls over their corner condo above Central Avenue, and the throbbing bass from the bars below rattles their bed frame and their nerves.

They bought their Bayfront Tower unit four years ago for the stunning views and vibrant streets 10 stories down. But the constant din of downtown St. Petersburg's nightlife has left them sleep deprived and cranky.

"I don't want to live in Ybor City," Joanne, 64, said.

Facing a drumbeat of similar complaints, city officials are again pledging to revisit the rules governing how noisy bars and businesses can get. That could include increasing fines for repeat violators to $500, an increase of less than $100 from the current max and the ceiling set by state law.

But a review of public records shows police almost never lower the boom on offenders. Since Jan. 1, the city has fielded 375 complaints about downtown noise. Officers have issued two citations.

• • •

City leaders appear hesitant to promise a crackdown.

Mayor Rick Kriseman told a crowd of noise-weary members of the Downtown Residents Association last month that the city is experiencing growing pains, largely welcome ones.

"When you live downtown, you live downtown. It's an urban area," he said. "But at the same time, there should be a balance."

The city, he said, is working to make St. Petersburg attractive to recent graduates and young minds.

And on any given night downtown, evidence abounds that it is. Students from Eckerd College and University of South Florida St. Petersburg mix with young professionals as they bounce among its many bars, stop to play giant Jenga, ride bikes along the waterfront or ascend to rooftop hangouts.

"It's a really good scene for people my age," said 22-year-old Shannon Vize, a recent Eckerd College graduate who decided to start her career in St. Petersburg.

A handful of venues generate regular complaints, including the Amsterdam on Central Avenue and nearby Push Ultra Lounge, both of which have outdoor areas. Although residents say a recent extension of bar hours to 3 a.m. made things worse, the biggest clusters of calls fall near midnight and on weekends, particularly on popular First Fridays.

Police Lt. Gary Dukeman, head of the downtown night patrol division, said the reason for the seemingly sparse enforcement is complicated.

The first goal is to get club owners to turn it down when they get too loud. Most comply immediately when approached.

To issue a citation, police must first determine if there is a violation of a city ordinance that says that music and other sounds cannot travel beyond a certain distance from their source during designated hours. To guarantee it will hold up, officers also must collect a sworn statement from the "victim," even at 3 a.m.

Joanne Scafati said the hassle — dragging from bed, opening doors to police, raising a right hand and promising, if necessary, to testify in court — creates a chilling effect for anyone who'd rather remain anonymous.

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It's inconvenient, Dukeman said, but without residents' cooperation, there isn't much police can do to solve the problem.

"In just the last several weeks, I can't think of anybody who let us meet with them," he said.

• • •

Downtown denizens have griped about nighttime noise for years. Condo dwellers and business owners have been dueling as long ago as the early 1990s, when the exasperated general manager of Jannus Landing and Club Detroit said the conflict was the result of a "generation gap." And those were the sleepy days.

The city altered its noise ordinance in 2000 to target low-frequency bass thumping and again in 2008 to focus on how far sound travels and at what hour. As the 'Burg continues to grow — shedding its sleepy reputation and even eclipsing Tampa's Ybor City as a destination for night crawlers — so do the gripes.

Downtown resident Janet Greenwood, who is in her 60s and moved into the Cloisters on Beach Drive last spring, said she and her husband chose St. Petersburg because of its vibrant blend of young and old.

"It's the place to live," she said.

But she fears that inaction by city officials could carve a divide between downtown residents and business owners.

City Council member Karl Nurse said addressing the problem is a challenge, but a good one that many downtowns would envy.

"We have two goals," said Nurse, who represents downtown. "A lively, growing downtown and the ability for several thousand people to be able to sleep at night."

To ensure the latter, the Scafatis, of Bayfront Tower, took matters into their own hands. They bought earplugs and white-noise makers and installed $46,000 soundproof windows.

Joanne estimates she has summoned police about a dozen times since they moved into the condo. Managers of the loudest downtown bars know her name.

"This is fun for the kids, but after a while it's difficult," said Albert Scafati, 68. "I'm not against millennials. But I also want to be able to sleep."

Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kemettler.

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