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Downtown panel finds solution to rising noise levels elusive

Monday, September 24, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The Downtown Commission rejected staff proposals to soundproof future high-rise construction downtown, saying the measures cost too much and would do too little to block rising noise levels.


Co-mingling high-rise condos and with live music venues in downtown Austin has not been as compatible as many had hoped. A third-party study that questioned construction at the W Austin Hotel and Residences sparked interest in pursuing two options for mitigating noise: at the source of the sound and in the construction of future downtown buildings.


A study commissioned by the city’s Music Department last year, completed by Acoustic Spaces, suggested that Cedar Street Courtyard at 208 West 4th Street presented a noise problem, even though the venue appeared to be in compliance with the city’s noise ordinance. In December, Council directed the building inspections division to weigh changes to the city’s land development and technical codes to address building construction.


Dan McNabb, who heads the city’s building inspections division, had no silver bullet at Wednesday night’s Downtown Commission meeting. Instead, McNabb, and Leon Barba from his division said the solution for construction needed to be simple, affordable and effective for high-rise residents.


One imperfect solution they suggested: laminated glass. Laminated glass can block some, but not all, of the noise entering a high-rise condo unit.


“It’s simple. It’s easy. We wanted to give the architects a lot of leeway,” McNabb said. “They have a lot of design leeway, and that’s the reason we went with the laminated glass, with the understanding it blocks some, but not all, on the source side.”


But as simple as laminated glass sounds – a film layer on the inside and outside of each pane of glass – the price is costly. Officials who plan to build mixed-use developments at the site of the decommissioned Seaholm power plant and site of the former Green Water Treatment Plant have said adding laminated glass on construction of residential uses five stories or taller would add a cost of 1 percent to 3 percent to the construction costs on each unit.


Members of the Downtown Commission considered that a high price for a measure that may fail to block low-frequency thump of live music.


Mandy Dealey, who now chairs the Downtown Commission as Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s appointee, pointed out that the issue with many music venues was not amplified music; it was outdoor live music. Others on the commission acknowledged the problem but said the price tag on laminated glass was too high.


The commission chose to pass on McNabb’s proposal because it was “very costly and doesn’t fully address or solve the problem,” Dealey said. Nor did it address the issues of the 10,000 people already living downtown.


Long-time commissioner Bruce Willenzik mentioned that the laminated glass still wouldn’t mute live, hard-rocking music. “No drums? No basses? No guitars?” he asked. “Let’s all play flutes. It won’t penetrate, but it also won’t sell.”


Commissioner Jack Galligan said it was important to find a solution to the rising noise levels downtown, but laminated glass wasn’t it. “The problem is very real. I live at The Shore on Rainey Street, and we deal with this head on. There are people, families moving out of The Shore because of it (the noise),” Galligan said. “It looks like a lot of people agree this doesn’t fix the problem. It only makes things more expensive, and neither of those things is desirable.”


The building code could make high-rise condo units soundproof, Barba said. They could require the erection of a concrete wall that mutes sound. But people who buy condo units downtown generally like open space and a lot of glass. They like to wake up in the morning and look out onto a view of the city, not a concrete wall.


The Downtown Austin Alliance, represented by Charles Heimsath, opposed the proposed regulation being floated. 


“We don’t feel this addresses the problem,” said Heimsath said of the proposals to require soundproofing materials for construction. He said the DAA  would prefer to see noise issues resolved at the source. “When you add additional regulations to what is already a very complicated and ridiculous process, it only increases the cost and makes it more difficult to build projects downtown,” Heimsath said.


What city staff could have recommended was the intervention of acoustical specialists into the site approval process. An acoustical engineer could go out to each site and calculate how sources would impact a potential high-rise tower. But it would introduce one more layer of review in the downtown construction process, a flawed on at that.


McNabb pointed out that bars, and especially live music venues, change locations, making it difficult to guarantee a condo tower or hotel was “noise compliant” because the noise would be constantly changing.


Dealey said, “We need to search for a more nuanced solution that also benefits existing downtown residents and has as small an impact as possible on affordability. We really don’t have a ready solution to this problem.”


McNabb and Barba are in the process of gathering feedback and suggestions from city boards and commissions. Last week, they made a presentation to the Design Commission, which formed its own working group on the issue, and they have also presented to the Building and Fire Code Appeals Board. On Oct. 9, the duo is scheduled to visit the city’s Planning Commission to get its feedback on the topic before heading back to City Council.

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