Courtesy of Seattle Office of Music + Film
You will soon be hearing more about a mayoral and city attorney initiative to support a "safe and vibrant nightlife economy." Mayor Mike McGinn referred briefly to the upcoming initiative on Monday at the introduction of a new advisory commission.
The nightlife economy is an issue that certain neighborhoods in Seattle have struggled with over the years as they have evolved into mixed-use neighborhoods. Some started as primarily nightspots with the neighborhood moving in after “hip-ness” was established, and some became more vibrant much to the chagrin of longtime residents. Whatever the case, mixed uses have often created friction in Pioneer Square, Ballard, Fremont, the Central Area, Capitol Hill, and, particularly, Belltown.
And when someone gets fatally shot, as happened June 6 with the shooting death of a 21-year-old man in Belltown, the temperature rises and accusations fly.
So what are the mayor and City Attorney Peter Holmes trying to do? With the city council, McGinn has created the Seattle Music Commission to advocate for live music in Seattle and protect and nurture an incredible cultural and economic asset for our community.
McGinn didn't offer any details of what he and Holmes are planning to release. But, according to a leaked document that fits with the little that the mayor said, they are apparently developing a strategy for nightlife regulation that includes: code-compliance enforcement, flexible liquor service hours, noise ordinance enforcement, security training, police precinct outreach, professional development, late night transportation alternatives, and making it easier for police to target public nuisances. (Asked for comment, Holmes' office didn't confirm or deny that the document represented a draft of the upcoming initiative; he provided a statement saying: "We support the goals of a vibrant and safe nightlife. Timely community outreach to all the appropriate stakeholders is an essential part of the program.")
The strategies in the document are very similar to an approach that San Francisco pursued with its Entertainment Commission. It is an approach I have advocated for some time. In fact, at one time, I led a group from the city to visit the commission and look at how we in Seattle could emulate their success.
Unfortunately, after a promising beginning, the commission has been disbanded by the San Francisco's mayor because they were unable to provide the enforcement teeth to control some very bad actors. Enforcement now has gone back to the San Francisco Police Department. It's hard to say if the model failed due to its structure or its leadership. But it shows that failure is not tolerated by the public — even in a very tolerant city like San Francisco.
It's heartening to see code compliance enforcement at the top of the list for the mayor and city attorney. This is a very basic expectation of the public that the venues they visit are safe and inspected by city staff who know what they're doing.
The challenges here are training for fire department inspectors, and making sure Department of Planning and Development staff inspect during hours of operation — always a challenge given the 8 to 5 habits of city hall. But we're becoming a 24-hour city (the initiative is partly built on that idea) and staffing should reflect that reality.
Flexible liquor service hours are sold as a way to not have everyone dump out into the street at 2 am. There could be some utility to this idea in the initiative, but it needs to be studied more, with examples given of how it works in other cities. Still, people in their twenties don't even go out until 11 pm anymore.
On noise ordinance enforcement, the problem with the draft initiative is that the noise from a venue would be measured from a receiving area — i.e. the complainant. This has been a problem over the years, because noise is a low-level complaint for police officers. Police have been known to arrive at the complainant's home long after the noise has gone, only to wake the resident up a second time.
The noise proposal would only focus on amplified sound and not on general noise (such as a crowd gathered outside) from a location. This provision will undoubtedly be the most controversial.
The other provisions mostly aim to professionalize the nightclub business by requiring security training, professional development, and outreach from the police precincts. These strategies were cornerstones of the San Francisco approach and are generally helpful.
However, it must be recognized that, although most nightclub and bar owners are honest business people who work hard to run safe and fun operations, there are those who will not submit to any of these rules and will create problems for the neighborhood, police, and ultimately the mayor and city attorney. Unfortunately, the city must sometimes do everything within its power to shut down such venues. And it is not easy or quick.
I was part of the effort to shut down Larry's in Pioneer Square and Deano's on 20th and Madison. These venues became focal points for violence and criminal activity. If you ask people before and after the closures about the impact on their neighborhoods, most would say good riddance and be happy to have their neighborhood back again.
Another venue that created havoc for a neighborhood was Mr. Lucky's on Lower Queen Anne, where repeated problems with violence forced the city to put pressure on the club. Again, the neighborhood is a much better place without it.
One thing to point out here is none of the problematic venues had live music. Of all the calls and complaints I fielded during my time in the mayor's office, I rarely if ever received a complaint about a venue with live music.
Most of the problems we identified were related to promoters who come into a club, promise the owner a crowd, and pack the place. Certain promoters were known around town for always bringing trouble with them, but if the money is good, it can be easy to look the other way.
The promoters mostly work without contracts and share no liability with the club owner, so if something goes bad, they take the money and run, and don't look back. This nightlife strategy needs to address this issue. And again, it has nothing to do with music.
There is a lot to like about bringing these issues out for debate. The challenge at the end of the day is to create a regulatory framework that doesn't punish the good operators, maintains safe streets and a hospitable environment for all businesses, and gives the city the teeth to revoke the license of a business that compromises the safety of its patrons and the rest of the neighborhood.
Whatever the strategy, it will be tested as summer arrives in Seattle. Businesses are hurting everywhere and this is a place where government can and should act.
Crosscut deputy editor Joe Copeland contributed to this report.
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