One Saturday morning in early November, a 7-year-old girl plied her DJ skills for a Girls Inc. event at Brooks. As she played pop music for the assembled crowd, a police officer showed up in response to a noise complaint from a resident at the nearby apartment complex.

Dutifully, the event’s organizers turned the volume down a notch. Rik Wederstrandt, director of art and music education program AM Project who provided the DJs, chalked it up as a lesson for the young participants in learning to get along with their communities.

Sergio Acosta, owner of the Social Spot on 10th Street downtown, has had a different kind of experience. Four times since a new Noise Ordinance Pilot Program started Oct. 7, Acosta’s bar managers have received citations from the City of San Antonio for noise violations.

The pilot program was undertaken by City Manager Erik Walsh to supplement the efforts of the Noise Ordinance Task Force, which originated in March from an effort by Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) and Councilman Roberto Treviño, who then represented District 1. Both had fielded frequent noise complaints from residents in their districts annoyed primarily by loud music emanating from nearby businesses, and recognized the need for a workable solution.

The 15-member task force is charged with making the existing noise ordinance easier to understand and enforce, “so residents can have peaceful and quiet enjoyment of their home without having to resort to filing a complaint on their commercial neighbors,” according to a council consideration request. Adding to the challenge of revising the ordinance are residents’ concerns that businesses are too well-represented on the task force while businesses worry the group is too focused on a few particular venues and needs better representation from all districts.

Rigo Luna of Presa House gallery on South Presa Street said he’s been holding music shows for nine years without issue, but since the pilot program was instituted he received a citation during the venue’s fifth anniversary event Oct. 22, having moved music shows outdoors because of COVID-19 prevention efforts. The code enforcement officer appeared unannounced, then an SAPD officer arrived later with the ticket.

“I was confident that we’ve been doing our part to be cool with the neighborhood and not bother anybody,” Luna said.

The citation prompted him to shut down the music, at least until his court date in January, and he fears for the future of his venue. “I wish there was a way for everybody to find a happy medium,” he said.

Such occurrences as those above might become more common if enforcement hews to the letter of the law, which currently limits noise levels to 70 decibels for businesses during operating hours until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and until 10 p.m. other nights, with fines between $100 to $500 for violations. The ordinance also contains provisions for “habitual noise nuisance” violations, which are dealt with more strictly.

Enforcing violations

Councilman Mario Bravo, who unseated Treviño in the June election and now sits on the task force, said he doesn’t want to see venues discouraged from presenting live music, but, “at the same time, I want everybody who lives in a neighborhood to be able to maintain their quality of life and be able to get a good night’s sleep. … So I’m searching for a balanced approach.”

Most of the noise complaints received by the San Antonio Police Department are for apartment complexes, not businesses, said SAPD Capt. Randall Smith, a task force member, during an August task force meeting. However, the group has focused most of its attention on noise emanating from businesses situated near residential areas, such as the St. Mary’s Strip and along Broadway Street — both of which are home to many bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

According to SAPD records, complaints focused on bars and restaurants numbered 475 from Jan. 1, 2020, through July 21, 2021 — a mere 1% of the 53,564 total loud music complaints logged. However, Bravo said the ratio is misleading because while apartment residents or homeowners might host the occasional loud party, businesses that feature live or amplified music are more likely to be repeat offenders.

Task force member Sam Aguirre has lived in the Tobin Hill neighborhood near the St. Mary’s Strip for two decades.

“It’s great living in a walkable part of town with amenities like [bars and restaurants]. So that’s on the plus side,” Aguirre said. “But we were starting to have an uptick of noise, like crazy noise. It was really bothersome to the residents.”

Aguirre said the issue goes beyond decibel limits. He would like to see special noise rules that apply to the River Walk applied to the St. Mary’s Strip — no outdoor amplified sound, no noise after 10 p.m. daily, and a limit of 72 decibels.

Acosta said his interest is to get along with his 10th Street neighbors, on which the business relies. After receiving a few noise complaints upon first opening in 2017, the bar now maintains a sound meter onsite to ensure compliance with the ordinance. However, a resident at the newly constructed Flats at River North apartment complex has recently registered complaints about the sound coming from the bar’s outdoor patio.

Acosta adjusted the positioning of the sound system and the layout of the patio to help avoid causing a problem, but he said city code enforcement officers in the pilot program have made unannounced visits, recorded noise above the decibel limit without letting him know, instead dispatching police officers to issue citations.

Since the pilot program began last month, the code enforcement division of the Department of Development Services has investigated 881 noise complaints throughout the city’s 10 districts, with 127 incidents referred to SAPD and 66 citations given by either code enforcement officers or police officers.

The pilot program was initially set for a three-month run, but has been extended to six months, Perry said, in order to collect a broader range of information for the task force to consider.

The noise whisperer

The task force itself has gone long past its charged duration of 90 days and will likely go into early spring because of the complexity of the issues involved, Perry said.

“There’s been a lot of really great discussions at the meetings so far, and we’re nowhere near being done,” he said. “We knew this was going to take a long, long time to get this sorted out, but we’re gonna keep working on it.”

Austin civic sound consultant Don Pitts, called a “noise whisperer” by those familiar with his work, said pitting businesses against residents creates an “us versus them mindset,” which creates a foundational problem in such efforts to establish workable noise ordinances.

Pitts worked for years in the Austin music industry, then helped achieve a 70% reduction in noise complaints over his seven-year tenure working on sound ordinances with Austin city government.

He now leads Sound Music Cities, a consultancy that works with cities on how to fashion ordinances that respond reasonably to resident concerns while allowing music and entertainment to thrive.

As an advocate for music, Pitts said “it is … helpful to consider a shift in understanding” regarding the very name of the ordinance. “‘Noise’ requires regulation, whereas ‘sound’ requires management,” he said.

According to the Sound Music Cities website, effective sound management derives from a collaborative and inclusive approach that sees music as part of the civic fabric overall, one facet among “broad civic initiatives like housing affordability, space to work, health care, diversity, equity, small business development, and regulatory reform.”

Pitts said his experiences working with various cities have shown that “effective sound policy clearly separates good actors from bad, and allows operators to be stable and successful with the entertainment services they provide if they are complying with guidelines.”

A successful ordinance “builds trust with the commercial music industry and at the same time addresses quality of life for the rest of the city,” he said.

The VFW 76 Post sits within earshot of the Jones and Rio apartments on W Jones Avenue.
The VFW Post 76 sits within earshot of the Jones & Rio apartments on W Jones Avenue. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Not a new issue

The issue is not new for San Antonio, or for the Broadway corridor.

Treviño recounted how the City was able to solve a persistent noise complaint based on music coming from VFW Post 76 and other venues along the Museum Reach near the Jones and Rio apartment complexes.

Billed as “the oldest post in Texas,” the Post 76 Canteen beer garden holds events and regularly hosts karaoke and DJ nights, but ran into a common issue among established venues located near new residential developments.

Treviño partnered with the San Antonio River Authority to undertake a 2019 field study, hiring an acoustic engineer to measure levels around the venues, the residences, and the portion of the River Walk between them.

Results of the study focused mainly on building construction and recommended use of materials that insulate residential interiors from exterior sound, but Treviño said other simple solutions were put into play such as changing the orientation of speaker systems.

“In the end, everybody coexisted,” he said. “Those apartments are still there, the VFW Post is doing what they normally do every single day.” However, several new venues have since opened in the area, including El Camino and Elsewhere, which uses outdoor amplified music.

While undertaking elaborate studies for each instance would be impractical, he said the result provides a potential model for modifications to the current ordinance.

“Having a better noise ordinance will help us to address those typical concerns, so that the outcome is one where everybody benefits,” Treviño said.

Bravo signaled resistance to imposing new regulations on construction, citing the many historical buildings in District 1 built that predate the usage of sound-insulating materials. He recommended that the task force employ a sound professional, which it currently lacks, and echoed the idea of a collaborative, solutions-oriented approach elaborated by Pitts.

“We need to come to a consensus,” he said. “Any new policies and procedures going forward, we should make sure that they’re aligned with what the community vision is.”

To Acosta, a community vision should take into consideration what having a vibrant downtown means to a city.

In any densely populated city that has a vibrant nightlife and vibrant culture, he said, “you’re gonna have that noise” above the current limit of 70 decibels. “Maybe we do need to raise it,” he said. “And the people that are complaining about it, maybe downtown urban living is not for them as they once thought it was.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...