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Sounding Off

Can Downtown Burlington be lively and livable?


Published July 23, 2003 at 4:30 p.m.

It almost goes without saying that one person's music is another's migraine. And if you live in downtown Burlington, where there are about 30 bars in a six-block area, that's roughly 4000 patrons right outside your window on any given weekend night. Even with the most diligent efforts to muffle the masses, all that human traffic creates quite a buzz.

Lately, Doug Dunbebin has been making quite a buzz of his own. Last week, the former Burlington city councilor from Ward 3 attended a License Committee meeting, which makes all recommendations on applications for liquor licenses as well as indoor and outdoor entertainment permits. Those permits cover everything from solo street musicians to the Mardi Gras parade. Dunbebin was there supporting a proposal to scale back the hours when bars and clubs can offer live entertainment. That proposal would require Burlington bars to cut off all live music at 1:30 a.m. instead of 2 a.m., as the law currently allows. The idea is to help alleviate the late-night "flush effect," when large numbers of bar patrons empty into the streets of downtown simultaneously, often resulting in noise, fights, vandalism and other disturbances.

Two hours after the committee meeting, Dunbebin was testifying at a meeting of the Public Works Commission. The commissioners were revisiting a decision they'd made last month to enact a citywide ban on all trash pickup before 7 a.m., which is two hours later than the law previously allowed. Dunbebin and other downtown residents have long complained about being awakened by garbage trucks and banging dumpsters as early as 4:30 a.m., apparently in violation of the citywide noise ordinance.

But the commissioners' decision also raised the ire of local trash haulers and the Burlington Business Association (BBA), neither of whom were given a chance to comment on that decision. Both contend that a later pickup time will conflict with commercial deliveries and commuter traffic, raise health and safety concerns and ultimately increase the cost of doing business in Burlington.

What did the two meetings have in common? Both were attempts to address the issues of late-night and early-morning noise downtown. And Dunbebin brought both to the attention of city government, along with a newly formed group of downtown residents who have been raising their voices about perceived erosions of their quality of life. It remains to be seen whether their views are just the howls of a small but vocal minority or reflect a wider sentiment among the growing number of people moving into the city's core.

Either way, their complaints have not fallen on deaf ears in City Hall. And that worries some members of the business community, who say this new effort to hush the hubbub of Vermont's busiest commercial district is at odds with the city's often-cited goal of creating a "24-hour downtown." More importantly, critics charge this is just the latest imposition on downtown businesses, which are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain an edge over suburban competitors.

Think the Downtown Neighborhood Association sounds like a circle of purse-lipped old cranks wagging their fingers at the racket on Church Street? Not quite. Dunbebin, 41, and his wife, Trina Magi, 39, co-founded the group last month with 24-year-old Thomas DeSisto. A resident of the Vermont House across the street from City Hall Park, DeSisto was working on a grant to beautify the park when he discovered that he couldn't get the grant because there was no neighborhood association to accept the money.

Although this weeks-old organization has no formal membership yet, Dunbebin and DeSisto claim to have the support of a large number of downtown residents of all ages and incomes. They point to the 80-plus signatures they gathered on a petition that asks the city council to address such quality-of-life concerns as early-morning trash pickup, outdoor amplified music, noisy bar patrons, late-night fights, vandalism and so forth.

Dunbebin insists his group is not a bunch of NIMBY whiners. Like any other neighborhood association in the city, he says they just want a greater voice in the decisions that affect their neighborhood. And they want to make positive contributions, Dunbebin says, such as helping to beautify City Hall Park, plan the waterfront, improve the transportation system and attract more businesses to downtown that cater to residents' needs.

"We love living downtown. We deliberately chose to be here," says Magi. "We love the convenience of it and not having to use our car. It's fabulous. And we want there to be a healthy mix of businesses."

Magi and Dunbebin never expected Church Street to be quiet country living -- they live in a high-traffic, mixed-use neighborhood where sirens, snow plows and lively shoppers are a given part of the city's ambient sounds. But they also believe that certain city policies -- like granting permits for outdoor amplified music until 1:30 a.m. -- run contrary to Burlington's oft-touted claim to be a "livable" city. "People say, 'You live downtown. What do you expect?'" says DeSisto. "But nobody ever says, 'You live in a college area. Just deal with the noise.' What holds true for other residents should hold true for everyone."

"I don't think our expectations are unreasonable," DeSisto adds. "I fully expect to hear intoxicated people shouting, car alarms and people puking in the alley. I shouldn't have to expect that, but I do. We're just trying to address the problems that can be addressed."

But Burlington has succeeded in concentrating its late-night partying in the Church Street area, critics argue. Is it reasonable to impose tighter noise restrictions? Dunbebin thinks so. He points to a chart he compiled recently comparing Burlington's outdoor entertainment policies to those of six other U.S. cities: Boulder, Portsmouth, Ithaca, Santa Cruz, Seattle and Boston.

According to his research, none of those cities allows outdoor amplified music after 10 p.m. during the week or 11 p.m. on weekends. Burlington allows outdoor amplified music as late as midnight on weeknights and 1:30 a.m. on weekends.

"What I didn't expect to find was that big cities like Boston and Seattle do a much better job of protecting their residents from excessive noise than the City of Burlington," Dunbebin says. "And Seattle was the home of the band Nirvana, so we're not talking about some quiet backwater."

When Dunbebin was on the city council, he consistently voted against outdoor entertainment permits. But he contends that because there was no neighborhood association to voice those concerns, he had trouble convincing his fellow councilors that residents consider late-night noise a real problem.

But that may be changing. "Dunbebin's group put forth some very important issues that we're taking very seriously," says Councilor Bill Keogh, who chairs the license committee. "I'm not sure we're getting more complaints from the public. I just think we are more attentive to downtown issues than ever before."

The Burlington Police Department didn't keep statistics on noise complaints until recently, since most of them were not criminal violations, according to downtown commander Lt. Scott Davidson. If a bar has a permit for outdoor entertainment, he says, there's nothing his officers can do about the complaints.

But Councilor Keogh also doesn't give much credence to Dunbebin's city-by-city noise comparison. "I'm not concerned with other cities. I'm just concerned with Burlington," he says. "We're trying to strike a balance between the people who live downtown and want to get a good night's sleep as well as the needs of the bar owners. They need to make a buck, too."

Ron Redmond, executive director of the Church Street Marketplace, agrees. He says Burlington doesn't need to look elsewhere to figure out what works best, especially since so many other cities see Burlington as their model. "I don't want to be like Ithaca or Portsmouth. I don't want to be like Boulder or Santa Cruz. I want to be like Burlington," Redmond says. "That's what makes us kind of cool."

Nor is Redmond convinced that Dunbebin's group represents a widely held sentiment in the community. "We don't get the sense that people are storming the castle with pitchforks and torches," Redmond says. "It's only very recently that this has even become an issue."

Like others in the business community, however, Redmond is concerned about recent efforts to stifle the scene, including one suggestion earlier this year to scale back the hours of Burlington's annual jazz fest. "What are we doing here?" asks Redmond. "Do we really want to shut down music at 10 p.m. for the Discover Jazz Festival, the largest music festival in the state and a nationally recognized event? That seems a little extreme."

Tim Halvorson is the owner of Halvorson's Upstreet Cafe, chair of the Church Street Marketplace Commission and vice-chair of the Burlington Business Association. He's seen firsthand how Burlington's music scene has been muted. He remembers a time when on any given night one could catch live local talent at Hunt's, Club Toast or the Chicken Bone Cafe -- clubs that have since closed. But live entertainment is threatened, he says, as bar owners get fed up with all the new restrictions and closer scrutiny they face whenever they apply for an entertainment permit.

"We're doing less live music here than we ever have before. And part of the reason is an apprehension about noise," Halvorson admits. A year ago, his cafe offered live music three nights a week. This year, he says, he's cut it back to one night, even though he's permitted to have more and his customers ask for it.

Just last month, Halvorson received what he claims was his first noise complaint in 15 years. A Burlington police officer showed up at 8 p.m., even though Halvorson has a permit for outdoor music. "I said to him, 'I'm legal, I have a permit, it's not too loud in your opinion and it's not too late at night. So why do I feel like I'm being arrested?'" Halvorson complains. "But I don't want to put myself in the bull's eye just for a little bit of music.

"So who loses?" he continues. "My cocktail staff, the beer distributors, local musicians and the customers who enjoy it. And what effect does that have on the viability of the arts scene in this town?"

None of the bar owners wants to create a musical free-for-all on Church Street, Halvorson says. But he contends that a small, vocal minority of people who have recently transplanted to downtown have unrealistic expectations about what should be considered acceptable noise.

"Doug Dunbebin claims that as a resident of Church Street, he should have the exact same rights as if he lived somewhere else in town. Well, there's a zoning difference," Halvorson says. "I can't open a restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the New North End. That's the tradeoff you make. You don't move to the ocean and then complain about the smell of the fish."

Not all Church Street residents have a problem with the loud bars, outdoor bands and street festivals. Those inevitable sounds of the city aren't nearly as bothersome, they say, as the radio stations that set up loudspeakers on the street all day or the "virtuosity-impaired" violinists who play the same tune over and over in one spot for days on end.

"Parades, music festivals, First Night, those kinds of things? You just become accustomed to them," says Marc Maderazzo, a 12-year resident of Church Street who has an office in his home. "We take that as part of our community and we live with it, even when it's something we don't want to hear. You just deal."

Part of the problem, some bar owners say, is that Burling-ton does not have a decibel limit that defines how loud is too loud. "The city won't set an objective standard," says one club owner, who asked not to be identified. "We've had nine noise complaints in the last month. They could all be from the same person, but the city won't give you that information."

Those complaints can come back to haunt proprietors when their liquor licenses come up for renewal. Another club owner was more blunt about the anti-noise campaign. He called it part of a "neo-prohibitionist trend" on city council to ban any activities involving alcohol.

Martti Matheson, owner of Rasputin's, sees it as just another hindrance to doing business in downtown. "This year we got taxed more, our insurance doubled," he laments. "Now our entertainment is being scaled back. We're constantly being scrutinized as business owners. How much does the noose tighten?"

Nancy Wood, the new executive director of the Burlington Business Association, agrees. She says Burlington has invested considerable time and money cultivating its regional and national reputation as a festival-friendly town. But those efforts could easily be undermined if Burlington earns a reputation for being too restrictive on its nightlife.

Rick Norcross of Airflyte Productions owns the Green Mountain Chew-Chew, an annual food festival that draws between 40,000 and 70,000 to Burlington's Waterfront Park. Norcross, who has staged dozens of events in Burlington streets and parks over the last 20 years, says, "The noise thing has only recently reared its ugly head." While he enjoys working with the City of Burlington, he says that fewer and fewer people are willing to take on the hurdles of putting on outdoor events. "Most cities are graveyards after work hours. That's not where we want to be," Nor-cross says. "Very few people are attempting to change this for everyone. And that hardly seems fair."

"We need to find a common ground and a common vision," says the BBA's Wood. "The Queen City needs to come to grips with whether it will continue to be a thriving urban center or a backwater. Burlington used to be the only game in town. Now there are other choices."

But the folks at the Down-town Neighborhood Association reject the suggestion that they are anti-business. As Magi points out, she and her husband are avid supporters of downtown establishments and shop there whenever possible. Recently, she tallied up their checkbook and credit-card receipts over the last year to see how much money they spent in town. It came to more than $12,000. "Almost a fourth of our money we spent on downtown businesses because we really do believe in them and want to support them," Magi says. "If people just hear our case and see how reasonable it is, they'll understand these are simply quality-of-life issues."

Dunbebin agrees. At last week's Public Works meeting, he submitted a compromise proposal to the 7 a.m. rule for trash haulers that would allow certain exemptions for pickup as early as 5 or 6 a.m. "due to significant health, safety and/or access issues." The commissioners agreed to meet with the Marketplace Commission and hammer out a resolution that's more acceptable to downtown businesses, trash haulers and residents alike.

Likewise, at last week's license committee meeting, Keogh tabled the proposal to scale back the hours of live music to 1:30 a.m. -- for the time being, anyway. He said the committee will revisit the issue in three months after bar owners have had a chance to address the problem on their own.

"We don't want this to be-come a battle of residents versus businesses," Dunbebin insists. "We love having these businesses downtown and don't want to see them close. We just want them to respect the fact that when you do business here, you're going to have some bumping with your neighbors."