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Noise Ordinance: London Breed Legislation to Preserve Live Music & Nightlife 

Wednesday, Apr 8 2015
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Residents filled the six or more rows of seats in room 400 at City Hall on March 19, while a dozen or more folks wearing "I support #sfnightlife" stickers stood shoulder to shoulder along the far wall. Others trickled in and out, occasionally bumping into the electronic button on the wall, opening the automatic door, and dumping disruptive hallway noise into the Planning Commission meeting.

Music venue owners and managers, bar and restaurant owners, neighborhood group organizers, and artists and musicians had gathered for one reason: tell Planning Commission members they support proposed legislation that aims to protect San Francisco's nightlife from being pushed out by swift, large-scale development happening largely in mixed-use neighborhoods where entertainment venues have operated for decades but residential spaces are relatively new.

From a podium facing the commission members, Dennis Juarez, owner of Slim's, called the city's latest round of developers "carpetbaggers with no stake in the community," and told commissioners he wished the legislation would have been passed four years ago. Many in the crowd reluctantly laughed, aware that Juarez has spent years dealing with a noise complaint that ballooned into a legal battle causing Slim's — a live music venue that's operated since 1988 — to close for two weeks and spend six figures on sound attenuation. As he continued to speak, Juarez's voice began to quiver.

"San Francisco has been a hub for live music for 150 years," Juarez said. "If I were you, I wouldn't want to know that things changed on my watch."

As the second tech bubble has brought vast amounts of people and money to San Francisco, demand for a finite amount of available land has skyrocketed. Development has swept through the city swiftly, particularly in mixed-use neighborhoods that combine residential and commercial spaces in close proximity. Areas where nightlife and places of entertainment have existed for decades are now also home to new condominiums, filled with more and more residents who — as head-scratching as it may seem — are complaining about noise after they move in.

Slim's is merely one in a long list of entertainment venues that have closed temporarily or permanently, or sold in direct response to city development in mixed-use neighborhoods. Such development is happening quickly, often with little or no oversight with regard to noise. Cafe Cocomo in Dogpatch, Cafe du Nord in Upper Market, The Lexington in the Mission, Red Devil Lounge, and The Sound Factory are some that have changed hands, closed, or are set to close. Other venues, including the Elbo Room, Bottom of the Hill, and the Independent continue to negotiate real or potential changes brought on by approved and proposed building projects in their neighborhoods.

When area news stories popped up about condominiums replacing an old radiator shop near the Independent, Supervisor London Breed and her staff started looking at the issue. They met with members of the Entertainment Commission, Planning Commission, and police through fall 2014, and Breed introduced legislation in December. Several unanimous approval votes then occurred with the Small Business Commission, Entertainment Commission, a building and inspection hearing, and then the March 19 Planning Commission meeting. Breed's legislation moves on to the Land Use Commission this month before coming before the Board of Supervisors and ultimately the mayor as early as mid-May, according to Breed's staff.

"The soul of this city is just changing so fast, whether it's a Google bus or whatever else," said Jocelyn Kane, executive director of the Entertainment Commission. "It's different now from what we saw in the '90s, with the amount of money, and the sustained amount of change. This legislation is important because it forces project sponsors to come talk to us and get our signoff."

Breed's legislation aims to prevent noise disputes by improving relationships between venues and neighbors, and working more closely with developers who are building new residential properties close to music venues. The legislation would help prevent venues from being shut down if they are operating within city entertainment permits, requires developers to work with venues before they begin construction, and ensures that all potential tenants of a new development know about local entertainment venues before they move in. It also asks developers to include sound attenuation specifics in their development plans for new housing.

Supporters of the bill are quick to say they are not opposed to citywide development, but are eager to put Breed's legislative controls in place to proactively mitigate noise complaints.

When Guy Carson bought the live music venue Cafe du Nord in 2003, he had previously managed the music venue Hotel Utah, and had been a professional musician for more than 20 years. He and his partners were serious about music. At Cafe du Nord, they booked act they thought were "important," as eclectic as the market would bear — from Donovan to a reunited Sebadoh, indie-folk act Sea of Bees to pop-punk poster-boys Blink 182. It was music the owners thought people should see, regardless of the profitability.

"When we first moved out there, it was like the Wild West," Carson told SF Weekly. "There was a gas station, and a parking lot people were fixing their cars in. We pulled our vans in there to unload bands, and nobody complained about it. We essentially provided security for the area, by keeping an eye on things. We brought a lot to that neighborhood."

Carson sold Cafe du Nord in January 2014 when developers at the corner of Sanchez and Market agreed to add 225 new residences. The building needed repairs he and his partners couldn't afford. At the tail end of a four-year recession, they had been hit hard, and all those new neighbors coming in was a scary prospect. The building project was part of the larger Market Octavia Area plan, a Better Neighborhoods Program initiative designed to help areas along Market Street from Van Ness to Octavia become more of a "vibrant urban place," with potential for new mixed-use development, including a significant amount of new housing aimed at attracting "a wide range of people both day and night."


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Gary Moskowitz

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