Rooftops Might Be Cooling Off

Help me I’m melting. On the coldest day of the year I walk around with a ton of clothing, a dozen layers, and a grin on my face. I love the cold. The summer heat slays me; crowded clubs, with only “OK” air-conditioning systems, leave me limp (hey, no wisecracks from the ex-wives). The proliferation of rooftop hotspots and backyard bars has caught the city a little off-guard. It’s not that specific laws that moderate such expansions don’t exist, they’re just hard thing to enforce. A good friend of mine lives just across from the outdoor patio of a successful spot in the East Village. This time of year there are, at any given time, a hundred nice people drinking, laughing, smoking, and listening to background music. It really is a nice place. For him, it’s a nightmare. The noise in his apartment is constant, and it goes late. He has tried a hundred times to get help from city agencies, but nothing much has happened, except bad blood between him and his saloon-keeping neighbor. I’m usually on the other side of the argument, fighting for the cause of clubs and bars, but as is often the case, a few bad apples can spoil the fun.

This city has a tendency to write legislation that accounts for “worst case scenarios,” and then use their new tool to beat the good guys to death, as well as the bad. A visit to the Department of Environmental Protection’s website sums up the problem right after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Commissioner Emily Lloyd’s names: “New York City recently overhauled its noise code. The new regulations try to balance the important reputation of New York as a vibrant world class ‘city that never sleeps’ with the needs of those who live in, work in, or visit the city.” Now that’s show biz!

According to Mr. Al Gore, global warming is not going to go away anytime soon. More and more operators will be seeking outdoor spaces to satisfy the needs of their clientele. Some community groups feel there aren’t enough current laws on hand to regulate the trend toward the great outdoors. New legislation (Bill A11288) by Brooklyn assembly woman Joan L. Millman is intending to change all that. Brooklyn’s booming nightlife seems to be a culprit, with many activists demanding new, and enforceable, written rules. The relatively new boom has every nook, cranny, and old-school granny and grandpa spot developing a backyard or rooftop fun. Community boards, eager for the gentrifying dollars of the hipster hordes, have been quick to issue liquor licenses. Rents have gone up, shuttered stores are occupied by the quaintest little shops, bars, restaurants, or galleries, and crime is being told to go away. Those who support NIMBY, which stands for “Not In My Back Yard!” are looking more like bad people to next year’s neighborhood. Newbie Brooklynites have the tax roles rolling. Likewise, nobody wants to stop this ball from rolling.

Millman’s new codes will dampen the spirits of those who enjoy their spirits outside. Under existing codes, bars must keep their windows closed. A walk down Bedford Avenue in BK, or Avenue B in Manhattan, underlines how little enforcement there really is. Millman’s new code will require permits for outside spaces and sale of alcohol there. Liquor may only be served at a table, and by a waitron. No amplified music shall be played, while windows and doors to these areas must remain closed. Applicants for permits must submit detailed plans showing proximity to neighbors, and intended lighting, as well as egress and safety plans. These plans are to be reviewed by the community board for their “opinion.” These spaces must be closed at 10PM, unless the community board says they can stay open later (like that’s going to happen). This bill only applies to cities in New York State, with populations of 1 million or more. Yeah, there’s only 1 city in New York State with 1 million people.

Later in this proposed legislation is the line, “fiscal implications for the State and Local Governments: NONE.” That is amazing. Ms. Millman actually states that the closing of hundreds of outdoor spaces that are jammed with spendy taxpayers, drinking taxable liquor, will have no fiscal impact. The loss of jobs to security teams, bar staff, cab drivers, delis, and merchants who service these spots, will have no fiscal impact? I’d love to hear her explain that.

There are existing laws that handle Ms. Millmans concerns. Outdoor decks, roofs, and backyards require filing with the department of buildings. The law requires that a neighbor should not suffer noise pollution from partying neighbors of more than 42 decibels in their apartment. A joint can’t spill more than 7DBs over the ambient noise level onto the street between 10PM and 7AM. Ambient noise is the din of tires, trains, horns, and people that exists normally in an area. The code explains that ambient sound “is the collective noise typical of a specific area.” It measures background noise that is not typical or “incidental.” It recognizes that Times Square is naturally—or, I guess, very unnaturally—noisier than Forest Hills. This regulation tries to understand that some places are going to be a bit loud. Some people like it that way.

So that you can get a feel for DB ratings, I went to the DEP site and found that a whisper is at 30 DBs, normal conversation is between 50 and 65 DBs, a vacuum cleaner is around 70 DBs, midtown traffic 70-85 DBs, and a jackhammer is 110 DBs. By the way, a typical nightclub sound system gives you a proud and loud 110 DBs rating. I know you really don’t pay attention to such stats, but I’ll ask you again in 10 years, and if you hear me, your answer might be different.

There is little reason for nightclubs or bars themselves to be bad neighbors. My design firm always takes soundproofing, speaker placement, and neighbors seriously. Minimal effort can go a long way. Despite all these efforts, partying under the stars can be problematic. Although there is some merit to Ms. Millman’s legislation, each situation must be dealt with individually. The roof in a nonresidential warehouse joint, or 30 floors up, are not the same as a backyard in a crowded residential neighborhood. The new noise code of July 2007 recognizes that the “previous code was outdated and did not reflect the changing city landscape or advances in acoustic technology.” The “changing city landscape” is the encroachment of residential real estate into hoods where nightlife thrives. Areas with established nightlife sectors should be considered for special consideration. Maybe they should get some slack on the spillage of noise, possibly a few DBs. New construction should require state of the art sound dampening windows, and material, so that new residents can co-exist in peace and quiet.

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