Last Call? 

New residential developments drive downtown policy, noise ordinance talks

I n less than three decades, Boise's city center has evolved from a sparsely-filled retail, warehouse and industrial district into the hub for business and night life. Now, the city core's shift toward more residential living might change busineses that have grown up there. Mowbray Davidson, owner of Tom Grainey's on 6th Street, has watched downtown evolve.

"When I bought Grainey's in '97, there were 12 liquor licenses downtown," said Davidson. "Now there are 54 or 55."

In the next decade, downtown is slated to grow as more condominiums are constructed. Eleven new developments are either in the proposal stage or being built within the downtown core. If all of the developments go through, there could be 1,000 new residential spaces added to the city center--a 20-fold increase.

Most business and bar owners welcome the developments, but the big-city changes bring some growing pains.

While the construction of so many residential units is not likely to change the cultural character of downtown, it may present conflicts between urban dwellers and downtown rowdies. In an effort to prevent potential conflicts between new residents and bar hoppers, Boise City is looking at how to manage the growth.

"We want to address the needs of both people who live down here and those who play down here," said Elizabeth Duncan, spokeswoman for Mayor Dave Bieter. "You have to accommodate both residents and revelers."

Now the city has re-directed its downtown business task force. In addition to city officials, the group will now include more downotown merchants and bar owners. Geoff Hundt, director of events and operations for the Downtown Boise Association, sees the task force approach as proactive.

"Before we get substantial amounts of residential housing in that area ... we need to come up with something that lays the ground rules for businesses and residents so that people know what to expect," said Hundt.

Like many downtown business owners, Davidson warily welcomes the new condominiums.

"I'm positive about residents coming in as long as we don't start tailoring to people living downtown," Davidson said.

One of the proposed condominium developments will be less than two blocks away from Davidson's bar.

"I think the late-night activity could be a problem for some people living in those condos," he said. "But that's a part of living in a city." Other downtown business owners, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said they were concerned about new residential housing having too much influence over downtown policies.

Sgt. Lori Sperry of the Boise Police Department said that the task force will need to revisit the city noise ordinance before residents move in. For the past year, Sperry has headed up the department's downtown bar team, a group of officers that patrols the area on foot on busy nights.

"Noise is probably going to be the single biggest issue," said Sperry. "It is going to be something that affects residents specifically."

Under the current city ordinance, if someone complains about any amplified noise that can be heard over 100 feet away from the source, the police department can require the band (or whatever the source of the noise may be) to cease. The ordinance also applies to outdoor sidewalk cafes that want to have live music. A live band on an outdoor patio is illegal without a permit.

But that doesn't mean that downtown goers won't be able to listen to music at popular patio destinations this summer. Enforcement of the ordinance downtown has been sporadic, said Sperry.

"During the summer, maybe one bar would have a band outside and since no one was living in the area it was just allowed to occur," Sperry said. "Now it's going to be an issue because there will be more people living down there who are trying to sleep."

Dave Krick, managing partner for Reef, Bittercreek and other downtown bars and restaurants, would like to see the ordinance change to better fit the area.

"The current noise ordinance is great when you don't have a high-density area like downtown," said Krick. As it is, he says, "Alive after Five would violate the sound ordinance."

Live music at outdoor cafes is just one issue the local task force may take on. In dealing with noise, the group may also look at assigning music permits to special events or outdoor cafes, requiring additional soundproofing on new or remodeled buildings and designating parts of the city as unique entertainment districts that uphold different standards for noise.

Those noise mitigation ideas are not new. Cities like New York, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle have all adopted new noise policies over the past decade. New York regulates noise by specifying hours of operation for nightclubs and regulations in specific zoning areas. San Francisco has designated special entertainment districts where residents sign waivers accepting different noise standards for their area. And Seattle is still in the midst of a contentious battle between city leaders and the local music industry over noise regulation for nightclubs and concert houses.

Those cities have had to deal with complaints about loud party-goers in the streets waking up sleeping residents. Because Idaho allows bars to serve alcohol until 2 a.m., said Davidson, residents should expect a certain level of activity on the streets at that hour.

Most residents will expect that activity, said Sgt. Rich Fuhriman from Boise Police Department, who serves on the task force.

"A lot of people who live downtown move there because it's a pretty energetic place to live," said Fuhriman. "It's part of the lifestyle for a lot people to be involved with events like Alive after Five or First Thursday."

While several of the new developments are already underway, there's no guarantee that they will promptly sell.

"If you look at places like Seattle, San Francisco, it took a long time for those really high-dollar condominiums to fill in," said Davidson. In those instances, developers have blamed the rowdy downtown scene when their condos don't sell. Already, some Boise developers have expressed some doubts about the downtown market.

The proactive approach won't guarantee against future conflicts, but Sgt. Fuhriman hopes Boise will benefit from looking at how other communities have addressed similar issues.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," said Fuhriman. "If there are other cities that have had problems with noise in the past, we want to look at their solutions and see if they are viable for Boise's use."

Although no one knows how these downtown changes will play out, Krick sees the growth as a positive thing for the community.

"What we're going through in developing our urban core is no different than what other communities are going through throughout our country," said Krick. "If we want to have a good, dense urban core, which makes sense on so many levels, then we probably need to make sure that we think this through before we have problems."

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