As Seattle weighs regulating nightclubs, cities elsewhere have used ordinances, permits, staggered closing times and other approaches to control the nightlife.

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A big-city mayor who welcomes downtown condo developments calls for a crackdown on noxious nightclubs, vowing to keep the city both vibrant and safe at night.

Sound familiar?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently declared New York the safest big city in America and is pushing to keep it livable in other ways as well, in part with a tougher noise code enforced by dozens of civilian agents.

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Meanwhile in Seattle, the City Council is concerned about nightclub-related violence and is divided over whether to require clubs to get a special nightclub license or beef up the city’s existing enforcement tools.

Seattle is hardly alone in struggling to find the right balance and tools for achieving a safe nightlife. Across the country, the return of suburban baby boomers to urban areas, the rise of a 24/7 work force and the demand for vibrant nightspots have revived downtowns but also led to conflicts as different generations and income levels try to live and play in the same general spaces.

Jim Peters, president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute in Santa Cruz, Calif., which promotes discussions on nightlife policy, says Seattle is typical of many cities wrestling with the issue.

“Where I’ve seen success is where policymakers, clubs and police come together on an equal plane,” Peters said. “Cities where there’s this ‘us versus them’ approach often just have conflicts because there’s not the respect of the people operating the businesses.”

Here’s a sample of how the conflicts play out in other cities and how the cities are trying to resolve them.

Austin, Texas

Nighttime noise is a hot issue in low-crime Austin as the number of condos, college students and music venues grows, supporting the Texas capital’s claim to be “The Live Music Capital of the World.”

Businesses can be fined up to $500 if the average noise level at their property line exceeds 85 decibels (as loud as a train whistle), said Randy Stoneroad from the city attorney’s office.

For years, the city’s noise ordinance was poorly enforced — only 10 citations were issued last year — because the city had only two sound-level meters and they were complicated to operate, said Lt. Fred Fletcher of the Austin Police Department.

Recently, the city received two dozen new, easy-to-operate meters, and Fletcher said he’s hoping noise complaints will start to decline as more citations are issued.

Also in Austin, two condo developers made headlines last year when they partnered with a music company to redesign Austin Music Hall, a large ballroom and concert space, and install sound-dampening material.

The developers said they wanted to be sure the music scene would be an amenity rather than a constant headache for prospective condo buyers.

Norfolk, Va.

How does a city with the largest naval base in the world keep the peace at 2 a.m.?

Norfolk has managed the impact of its sailors and other nighttime revelers by putting the onus on strip clubs, dance clubs and restaurants to strictly follow the conditions of a special permit it requires them to have, said Adam Melita, deputy city attorney.

Those conditions can include having a certified security staff, keeping doors closed and stopping entertainment 15 minutes before closing.

In the past three years, Norfolk has revoked only one such permit, Melita said.

“We don’t have a problem, and I think it’s because we spend a lot of time and energy on the front end of it,” he said. “By the time someone gets out the door with the permit, they are well aware of the requirements that we have.”

The permit is similar to the so-called special-use permits that Seattle can impose on businesses in certain residential zones.

But in downtown Seattle, zoning codes provide more leeway, allowing nightclubs, bars and restaurants to operate with few restrictions.

Alan Justad, a spokesman for Seattle’s planning department, said that’s why the city can’t stop a nightclub from opening downtown next to a condo, for example, and why the city can’t require either to soundproof their buildings.

To get such leverage, Seattle’s mayor has proposed a slightly different route: the nightclub license.

Hollywood, Calif.

In Hollywood, people have always partied late.

Like Washington, California bans the sale of liquor after 2 a.m. In 2000, the city of Los Angeles allowed new restaurants, dance clubs and bars in the Hollywood district to apply for a conditional-use permit that would allow them to stay open as late as 4 a.m., serving food and soft drinks and giving patrons more time to sober up.

“Instead of having all the clubs dump out at 2 a.m., we staggered them,” said Michael Downing, a deputy chief in the Los Angeles Police Department.

The police paid attention to traffic flow and the locations of clubs, with some closing at 2, 3 and 4 a.m.

Clubs say the later closing time doesn’t bring huge profits but does reduce the need for a huge security force.

The number of alcohol-related accidents and level of disorder on the streets have declined because of the later closing times, Downing said. The city has revoked the permit of only one club, he said.

The model has been successful enough that San Jose, in the Silicon Valley, is testing a 3 a.m. closing time in its club district downtown.

A few Seattle clubs stay open past 2 a.m., but the practice isn’t widely embraced in the Pacific Northwest.

Warren Lemcke, a police inspector in Vancouver, B.C., in charge of the city’s nightclub corridor on Granville Street, said that even though bars there are open as late as 3:30 a.m., his officers still spend most of their time breaking up fights at closing time.

Lemcke blames small numbers of rowdy patrons and says higher fines for individual misconduct, not later closing times, are what’s needed.

He recently visited New York City, where liquor can be served until 4 a.m., and accompanied a police squad on duty at night. Lemcke said he was stunned by the absence of public drunkenness and fighting in an area similar in size to Granville Street but with four times as many drinking patrons.

He asked the squad’s captain what the secret was.

“Zero tolerance,” the captain replied.

New York City

Seattle City Council staff interviewed counterparts in New York and came away with two observations:

The police presence on streets at night is greater than in Seattle, and officers are more aggressive in enforcing the laws against creating a public disturbance.

New York City also requires clubs and cabarets to obtain a special license and can shut them down if they ignore the rules, including a new one requiring security cameras at entrances and exits.

And last year, following a rape and murder of a club patron by a bouncer who was a convicted felon, Bloomberg signed a law that requires clubs’ security guards, including bouncers, to be licensed.

The new noise ordinance was inspired by the fact that noise was the No. 1 complaint to the city’s 311 non-emergency hotline. Under the new law, the city can go after clubs if the sound level exceeds seven decibels above general street noise when measured 15 feet away from their front doors.

As in Seattle, some New York clubs feel unfairly burdened.

Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said nightclubs weren’t considered as big a problem before the city allowed so many condos to go up downtown.

“Suddenly, all the residents who paid big bucks for their condos are upset when people come out of the clubs at 4 a.m.,” Hunt said, “and the clubs were there first.”

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or

How cities regulate nightlife
Austin, Texas Hollywood, Calif. Norfolk, Va. Seattle Vancouver, B.C. New York


San Francisco
Population 710,000 146,000 229,000 582,000 578,000 8,214,000 744,000
Conditional permit or license for downtown nightclubs? No Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Noise limit metered? Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Closing time 2 a.m. 4 a.m. (staggered) 2 a.m. 2 a.m. 3:30 a.m. 4 a.m. 2 a.m.
Source: Seattle Times staff research
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