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City releases road map for ‘agent of change,’ sound compatibility issues

Thursday, June 6, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s Economic Development and Development Services departments will spend much of the next 12 months implementing a variety of measures to reduce noise complaints and other issues that arise between residents and nearby entertainment businesses.

On Wednesday, EDD released a summary of the steps that will need to be taken at the administrative level to address sound compatibility issues, with improved enforcement of noise violations one of four key focus areas.

The other three are implementing an “agent of change” principle into the city’s building and land use codes to make new businesses responsible for sound mitigation; improving sound monitoring practices after an acoustic study to determine allowable noise levels; and encouraging more partnerships between residents and surrounding businesses to find solutions for noise and other quality of life issues.

The memo, which includes a full report from an outside consultant and feedback from multiple community forums, lays out 15 short- and longer-term action steps. Among those is working with the Austin Police Department to improve noise ordinance enforcement procedures, conducting an acoustic engineering study, testing new permanent sound monitoring equipment in dense areas, and creating a timeline for implementing agent of change language into an update of the city building code that is scheduled to take place next spring.

The city’s Music and Entertainment Division has been working with a variety of city departments to establish the agent of change concept as part of building and public safety practices for almost five years. Issues of noise disturbances have become more frequent as the city has grown and residential uses have moved closer to established entertainment districts, with a conflict between the Nook Amphitheater nightclub and Westin Austin Downtown hotel serving as the most prominent flashpoint.

An initial agent of change effort stalled in 2017 over concerns from nightlife, residential and lodging industry stakeholders that the planned policy changes wouldn’t go far enough to prevent noise complaints and would increase tensions between businesses and neighbors.

A restart last year came with an increased focus on enforcement as the central component, with stakeholders expressing more trust in the city and other groups to do their part.

Erica Shamaly, manager of the music office, said the city wants to preserve existing live music venues and other entertainment businesses and encourage future growth of those uses in other parts of the city, which will mean consistent enforcement and clear expectations on all sides.

“We are becoming a 24-hour city and the nightlife economy should reflect that in a safe and compatible way,” she said. “New issues are arising, and that happens in other tourist destinations around the world … we’re kind of ahead of the curve in terms of addressing these evolutions in our nighttime economy, which is good because we want to support that.”

Community feedback also showed that live music venues tend to be more cooperative with the city in operating within noise limits. David Colligan, acting assistant director for EDD, said he wants nightclubs, restaurants and other businesses that use amplified music in their business operations to come forward to work with neighbors.

“Live music venues were first, but now we are hearing complaints on other kinds of venues pumping music out at a loud level,” he said. “I’d like to see more bar and restaurant and entertainment venues coming forward to work with their surrounding neighborhoods in a similar fashion.”

Shamaly said continued growth all over the city will likely require an analysis every six months of what practices are working or need to be updated. That’s especially the case since the coming adoption of the city’s land use code is expected to encourage the creation of cultural and entertainment clusters in closer proximity to existing residential uses.

“We might not get it all right right now, but we will keep working towards compatibility because things are going to continue to change and evolve when we look at the changes to the land development,” she said. “We need all of our partners and stakeholders who work with us to find that balance. With monitoring, communication and enforcement we will be able to find a happy medium for everybody.”

Photo by Marlon Giles of nightlife on Sixth Street during SXSW (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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