A compromise for nightlife venues and their neighbors

Drake performing during a surprise Day Party at Brooklyn Mirage in August.
Drake performing during a surprise Day Party at Brooklyn Mirage in August.
David X Prutting/BFA/Shutterstock
Drake performs during a surprise "Day Party" at Brooklyn Mirage in August.

A compromise for nightlife venues and their neighbors

The “Agent of Change” bill in the City Council would require mutual soundproofing efforts.
September 25, 2018

Most New Yorkers are familiar with the experience: You’re ready to go to bed after a long workweek, but the thumping music from a bar down the block keeps you awake. You could make a 311 complaint, you could ask the bar’s owner to turn down the volume or you could just lie in bed and wait for it to stop.

None of those options are appealing. Tensions between the community and venues have existed as long as nightlife has been around. But the problems have become more acute in recent years, as the nightlife industry has rapidly spread to historically residential parts of New York City. Neighbors are understandably frustrated as a pulsing bass rattles their walls and drunken revelers shout below their windows, while business owners and artists often find themselves inundated with 311 complaints that make it harder to run their business. Loud noise and partying made up more than 50 percent of all 311 complaints, according to a recent analysis.

I believe there’s room for compromise. With effective, forward-thinking city planning, nightlife establishments and residential buildings can coexist. That is why I’m introducing the Agent of Change bill in the New York City Council. It would require building owners to soundproof all new residential developments being built near existing nightlife venues, and all new nightlife venues near existing residences.

It’s a matter of common sense. If you’re new to the community, you are responsible for ensuring you’re a good neighbor to the people that were there before you.

My bill is modeled after successful legislation that has already passed in San Francisco, London and Melbourne, Australia. New York City must join these cities in preserving both cultural hubs and quality of life.

Gentrification is threatening more and more communities. And as new businesses, including nightlife venues, pop up to cater to newer, wealthier residents, the noise they create can disturb previously quiet neighborhoods. This in turn can cause displacement, forcing residents to leave their community because of declining quality of life.

But subsequent waves of gentrification can create problems for the bars, clubs and music venues that follow it. If a rock club opens on a gentrifying, largely industrial street, a new apartment tower is often just a few years behind it. And sometimes newcomers from a different background complain about noise from long-standing businesses that serve the existing community. Community-based zoning and planning have been identified as tools to halt displacement, but nightlife is often left out of the discussion. Just as we work to save small businesses and community gardens from overdevelopment, we should also work to preserve our nightlife culture from rapid residential development.

That’s why it’s key that this legislation works both ways – to insulate residents from loud venues, and to prevent venues from being bombarded by 311 complaints.

Ignoring nightlife’s role in the growth of New York City is detrimental to the industry and its neighbors alike. Nightlife contributes $10 billion annually to the city’s economy, creates thousands of jobs for hardworking New Yorkers and offers spaces for creativity and identity to flourish. They are also civic spaces: It’s hardly a coincidence that a milestone event in the decadeslong struggle for LGBTQ rights occurred at the Stonewall Inn.

New York City is also home to a $20 billion music industry, which has been propped up by nightlife venues for decades. This is the city where Andy Warhol discovered The Velvet Underground at Cafe Bizarre in the Village and where a teenage Billie Holiday wowed audiences at the Harlem nightclub Covan’s with her singular voice.

Music venues are not the only target of noise complaints – even restaurants in Bushwick have been the subject of complaints, as new residential buildings rise around them. While commercial rent soars and luxury development booms, these small businesses often bear the brunt of not just increased rent, but also new neighbors. The Agent of Change bill would ensure that those wishing to capitalize on the cool neighborhoods that these hubs create are held accountable for maintaining them by balancing the concerns of residents and small-business owners.

Obviously, Agent of Change isn’t a silver bullet to ease tensions between nightlife spots and residents. While the legislation does not apply to existing venues or residential buildings, the city could explore incentive programs to encourage more soundproofing or other noise mitigation measures. And although noisy crowds outside venues remain an issue in some communities, businesses can be encouraged to adopt innovative methods to disperse the revelers, such as app-based queuing.

Last year, I launched a crusade to repeal the city’s racist Cabaret Law, which prohibited dancing in venues that didn’t obtain a cabaret license. I also sponsored legislation creating a new Office of Nightlife that would act as a liaison between venues, community members and the city. Now, with a newly appointed nightlife mayor helping to mend fences between nightlife venues and community members, I want to continue seeking ways to ensure New York City’s nightlife remains the envy of the world.

It’s time to dispense with the false choice between having a thriving nightlife and thriving communities. As housing grows denser and commercial rents rise, the Agent of Change bill will restore some balance. Some people just want to unwind after a stressful week, and some want to go out and celebrate. This bill affirms that they all have a place in our city.

Rafael Espinal, Jr.
is a councilman from Brooklyn whose district includes Brownsville, Bushwick, Cypress Hills and East New York.
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