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Will debate over McGinn’s nightlife plan need its own noise limits?

Mayor Mike McGinn, in a visit at Crosscut. Credit: Chuck Wolfe

Mayor Mike McGinn knows that his new “Seattle nightlife initiative” will create controversy.

Talking to Crosscut writers and editors a few hours before he and other city leaders unveiled the plan, McGinn said the proposals involve “meaty issues. I think there will be a lot of discussion.” And, he said, he looks forward to hearing public viewpoints on proposals, which he said could take considerable time to debate and implement.

There’s no doubt he will hear differing views. David Meinert, a partner in several Belltown establishments, told that the initiative is “pretty brilliant.” But residents in some neighborhoods, including Belltown, reacted with concern or alarm to early reports on the plan.

Since the initiative includes the hot-button idea of extending bar hours past 2 a.m., perhaps to 24 hours, there’s no doubt that the proposals will provoke plenty of discussion — or outcry.

The administration describes the overall initiative as balanced. As McGinn puts it, the plan attempts to achieve three goals: “public safety, the community, and our nightlife economy. And there’s a number of different proposals that address each of those.”

The plan includes stepped-up code compliance enforcement, noise ordinance enforcement, development of late-night transportation alternatives, security-training requirements for liquor-license holders’ staff, and police precinct outreach to communities. There’s also support for legislation that City Councilmember Nick Licata is developing that would empower police to issue tickets to people creating disturbances. All of those have potential benefits for neighborhoods and clubgoers. And, as the mayor pointed out, the city this summer already stepped up police presence in nightlife areas.

For nightlife promoters and musicians, there’s a strong verbal commitment to promoting “a vibrant nightlife economy” (something the initiative deems to be part of attracting “a creative class of innovators and progressive thinkers who drive the local economy and quality of life”). But the big change would be developing a proposal for “flexible liquor service hours.” The initiative says the 2 a.m. closing requirement for bars has the “unintended consequence (of encouraging) overindulgence while simultaneously pushing thousands of patrons on the streets with limited resources to effectively manage the activity.”

The closing hour creates a real crunch for police. One challenge for the mayor will be to show that public-safety officials can better manage a series of closing times, or no closing times at all. And neighborhood activists fear that, rather than facing one accustomed surge of noise at 2 a.m., people will be awakened repeatedly during the night. The initiative proposes a host of measures with the new closure rules, including putting more onus on nightlife operators to prevent disorder, involving neighborhoods more in operational planning, and creating a dedicated police unit that could work with other city departments on maintaining order.

Those ideas have already received some positive notice. But for McGinn, part of the challenge will be to show that the ideas will work in practice.

And that’s made harder both by the city’s strained financial situation and some of the specifics of how he has handled the budget crunch so far. There’s not a lot of extra money to start anything new, without ending some other service. Plus, McGinn has already declined to hire the additional 20 police officers approved by the council for just this kind of thing: neighborhood policing.

City human resource officials have told the police department’s seven-member crime-prevention team, whose members help neighborhoods deal with public-safety issues, to prepare to be laid off March 31 of next year. It sounds like a serious plan. Terrie Johnston, one of the crime-prevention specialists, said the human resource office also outlined outplacement services such as resume-writing help and advice on COBRA health insurance.

The crime-prevention people are in contact with neighborhoods in ways few other city officials are. Johnston said she has long been thankful for what she learned while helping a block-watch captain in Belltown after a surgery. Johnston stayed overnight, sleeping on the woman’s couch. As a resident of a neighborhood north of the Ship Canal, Johnston said she was enlightened about the noise that draws complaints from Belltown residents. “I don’t live in a concrete canyon,” she said.

“We cannot have it both ways,” Johnston said. “We cannot ask people to move downtown and then ignore a public health issue. And I think sleep deprivation is a public health issue.”

McGinn said his plan includes backing stronger noise controls proposed by Councilmember Sally Clark. But it may be hard to explain how removing the crime-prevention team can be reconciled with an increased commitment to the residential concerns in Belltown, Pioneer Square, the International District, and elsewhere.

Business support could be helpful to the mayor’s plan. Perhaps restaurants will speak for the plan, or at least sit out the discussions. But it’s also possible that some restaurants — as they’ve done in Pioneer Square — will ask themselves whether Belltown’s nightlife orientation is a plus or minus for them and their customers.

McGinn, whose still-new term has been notable for its openness to questions and public forums, talks about hearing other voices on nightlife. Discussing the public reaction, McGinn said, “We will present those ideas, but we also want to hear what they think about them. And if they have other, better ideas, we are open to those.”

With a broad set of proposals, McGinn said, “maybe we can have a discussion that doesn’t get bogged down on, you know, ‘Oh, you’re favoring nightlife versus the community.’ . . . We are trying to say, what is the list of things that we think can collectively improve the neighborhoods overall, improve safety, improve attractiveness?”

He will certainly have a discussion, and it will be, in the word the plan favors for the future of nightlife, vibrant.

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