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Council nixes requiring lamination of downtown windows to cut noise

Monday, August 26, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Austin City Council members unanimously agreed last week that a proposal to force developers of new downtown high-rise residential structures to laminate windows would do too little to mitigate noise problems and end up costing too much to install.

At the request of Council, nearly two years ago the Music Division of the city’s Economic Development Department began looking at ways to minimize downtown Austin’s noise impact on residents. The division held stakeholder meetings, performed sound studies and noise measurements.

On Thursday, staff suggested Council change the noise ordinance law and mandate developers of new residential structures over five stories high – including hotels, high-rise condominiums and apartments – to install laminated glass. Officials estimated a cost increase of 1 to 3 percent to implement the change.

Leon Barba with the city Building Inspection Department said laminated glass would not only help mitigate noise, but it would also increase safety and improve efficiency performance.

The division looked at other options like single pane windows, double pane windows, wood doors, drywall, etc.

“We decided to look at windows,” said Barba. “That’s where sound will travel to get into your residence. We struggled very hard with this particular issue. This was the simplest, easiest, and one-size-fits all solution.”

Before council unanimously rejected the proposal, it listened to an earful of opposition.

“Is there something better we can offer?” asked Annie Armbrust of the Real Estate Council of Austin. “As an organization we absolutely support the city’s economic development and live music in Austin. This just wasn’t a proposal that we could get behind.”

Council Member Bill Spelman asked Armbrust if her constituents had other solutions about which council should be talking instead.

“People mitigate for sound in all different sorts of ways,” she said. “Among the people I talked to, they’re thinking about it and addressing it, but not just in one way.” Armbrust said single panes worked in some cases, for example.

City Council is not the first entity to deny the division’s proposal. Both the city’s Downtown and Design Commissions rejected the music division’s proposal on the basis that the move would cost too much and do too little to lower the noise levels. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 24, 2012.)

“I’m very trepidatious about doing things that add cost unless it’s for a safety reason,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “Letting the market decide what to add and where to add it makes a lot of sense to me.”

Although she voted against the proposal as well, Council Member Kathie Tovo suggested the cost increase be weighed against expenses the city is currently incurring.

“Though it may raise developer costs 1 to 3 percent, we need to recognize there is a cost to the city having these focused resources on noise mitigation – the music division staff, code compliance staff and APD staff,” she said.

Much of the city Music Division’s time is spent dealing with noise complaints by residents. According to the city, 10,400 people live in downtown Austin. Between now and 2020, that figure is expected to rise to 16,000.

Barba said he’s not sure where the division goes from here. “During all of our meeting and sessions, everybody kept saying ‘you’re not looking at the whole picture, you’re just looking at this picture’,” he said. “And I said, ‘but that’s what Council directed us to do.’ Our job was to figure out what to do at the source, not to fix the big picture.”

A downtown Austin musician, also against the amendment, evoked laughter when he suggested the problem the city is tackling might be bigger than noise mitigation.

“If you don’t want noise at home, don’t move to the entertainment district of the city,” he said. “If (people) don’t know that downtown Austin is the entertainment district, then ignorance is more of an issue.”

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