Michelle Avila opened the Frida Social Club in Uptown, near The Crescent, back in March. Named for the unibrowed Mexican painter, Frida is a “patio lounge” with a regular brunch and a shaded outdoor setting in a part of town where restaurants and bars proliferate. Things get lively on Friday and Saturday nights. There might be a DJ. Sometimes, there is live mariachi music. People have fun, but it doesn’t get too rowdy, Avila says. No fights, and the residents living in the apartment units upstairs don’t complain. “They love Frida,” she says.
Not everybody does. Almost every week, officers from code compliance or the Dallas Police Department show up to respond to a noise complaint from a nearby business, Avila says. Frida has been ticketed multiple times, she adds. A manager and Frida’s sound technician have made their case to the officers at the club. The sound technician once tried to show them the reading on a decibel meter to try and prove Frida wasn’t being too loud, Avila says. That didn’t work.
“They just said if they can hear any noise from [outside] the property line, automatically that’s a ticket,” she says.
She’s worried. Her business depends on people, on music, on entertainment — on noise. She wonders how long Frida can stay open if it has to stay quiet.
This won’t come as much consolation to Avila — this won’t pay the ticket fines — but hers is not the only Dallas business that’s been told to pipe down this year. In March, the city’s code compliance department began a concerted effort to put a damper on noise. Since St. Patrick’s Day, code enforcement officers have issued about 30 noise citations and visited close to 1,000 businesses as part of an outreach effort on a new approach to enforcement, says Code Services Director Carl Simpson.
The ramped-up noise enforcement is in large part the result of a desire to free up the police department, he says. Historically, it’s been police officers who are called on to respond to most noise complaints. Code enforcement taking that over, as it now has, frees police focus on other things. And noise complaints are frequent, he says. Sometimes they’re about loud parties or mechanical sounds. But businesses like bars and nightclubs are, by their very nature, going to be the most likely repeat offenders. This is especially true in neighborhoods known for being entertainment districts.
Fittingly, the city’s new “enhanced noise enforcement strategies” have perhaps been most felt in places like Uptown and Deep Ellum, where a petition urging the city not to “silence Deep Ellum” has attracted more than 3,300 signatures in the last week. Jesse Moreno, the recently elected City Council member whose district includes the neighborhood, said this week he was starting a task force with business owners and residents to come up with a “Deep Ellum Cultural District-specific solution within citywide noise ordinances.”
Deep Ellum has long been known as a place where people get loud, whether it’s going to hear live music or belt down a couple drinks. It’s part of the reason people want to live there. The neighborhood’s success (and accompanying growing pains) in recent years can be attributed to the increasing number of people taking up residence next to Deep Ellum’s bars and restaurants and live music venues. These are people who enjoy being able to easily walk to those bars and restaurants and live music venues. But they also want to sleep at night.
“The approach we’ve implemented here with noise is trying to talk to the business owners and trying to encourage them that they need to consider being a good neighbor,” says Simpson, the code director. “This is really important in Dallas, because we’re getting more and more mixed-use, and more and more people are living downtown.”
The expanded enforcement comes from a previously little-used section of city code that prohibits making or causing “any loud and disturbing noise or vibration in the city that is offensive to the ordinary sensibilities of the inhabitants of the city.” It’s up to code enforcement officers to judge whether a business is making enough noise to offend someone’s “ordinary sensibilities.” Officers don’t have to take a decibel reading or conduct multiple inspections to reach that conclusion. It’s a more efficient and responsive way of enforcing existing noise ordinances, Simpson says, even if “ordinary sensibilities” is an admittedly subjective standard.
“I’ve never used anything like this in my 25, 30 years in law enforcement and code,” he says. But he gives an example. “In Deep Ellum, there’s been a couple of live bands that have played, and you can hear the music two blocks before you get to the location. By the time you actually get to the storefront, that’s probably offensive to the ordinary sensibilities.”
Code’s door-to-door approach is intended to help officers build relationships with business owners, and Simpson says the overall goal is to have “harmony” among the city, businesses, and residents. He notes that some noise complaints have come not from residents, but from other businesses, particularly hotels.
“The intent for us is not to close anybody down,” Simpson says. “It’s not to limit their ability to make money and to thrive and be vibrant. It’s quite the contrary. We just have to balance the businesses with our residents, who pay a lot of money to live downtown.”
Under the current system, he says, businesses are first visited by a code officer and told to quiet down. If they haven’t done so after a second visit 30 or 45 minutes later, they are issued a ticket. Those citations, which usually range from $300 to $500, can be challenged like a traffic ticket. Other times, businesses will just pay the tickets as the “cost of doing business,” without adjusting the noise that got them the tickets in the first place, Simpson says.
That’s why he would like an even “bigger hammer” to enforce noise ordinances, and his department will ask the City Council to amend the code to allow for commercial venues that repeatedly rack up noise violations to be labeled as “habitual nuisance properties” and be subject to harsher punishments.
Simpson says he’d like to hear more from business owners, although he’s skeptical of the idea that specific areas should be completely exempted from citywide noise ordinances. “I think we’re beyond that now,” he says. “There are too many residential communities adjacent to entertainment districts. I think you’re going to have some communities downtown–the people who live down here–are not going to be happy with that.”
Ordinances that rely on vague language (like “ordinary sensibilities”) don’t give business owners any clarity on how to follow the rules, says Bobby Abtahi, a former assistant city attorney (and former Park Board president) who represents numerous bars and restaurants in Deep Ellum and Uptown, including the Frida Social Club. A noise ordinance should be cut and dry, like a speed limit, and not subject to the interpretation of whoever “is there making the call,” he says.
The city has a long track record of failing its most successful entertainment districts, which have boomed and busted from the West End to Lower Greenville to Deep Ellum, Abtahi says.
“They lose control of their entertainment districts and instead of figuring out a way to do something about it, they basically say they’re going to shut it down,” he says. “City Hall has always had to grapple with the fact that they want Dallas to be a big world-class city, but they also try to make things so sterile and, frankly, boring. Many world-class cities have noise. And they have fun.”
Business owners in Deep Ellum have expressed a willingness to work with the city on a solution. Allen Falkner, a board member of the Deep Ellum Community Association and the owner of The Nines dance bar, says businesses in the neighborhood need to work together and self-regulate.
“We want to be good neighbors,” he says. “We want the community to like what we’re doing and enjoy what we’re doing. If it’s too loud, we’re going to work with people.”
But some ambient noise is to be expected in a place like Deep Ellum. Bars and restaurants with patios and decks should be allowed to use them. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced that keeping crowds spread out and outside is generally good practice, Falkner says. And noise is inherent to Deep Ellum; it was there well before the apartment towers were.
“What I’ve been hearing is that people were getting citations and warnings because [music] could be heard outside the venue,” he says. “You want to walk down the street and hear music. If you walked down the street and heard complete silence, that’d be terrible.”
Falkner wants to find a middle ground, and says there are options that could allow for a reasonable amount of sound without disrupting the kind of harmony described by Simpson.
“We’ve got to figure out how the core is different from the residential neighborhoods,” Falkner says. “Deep Ellum is known for music and sound and culture but we’ve also got a large influx of residents as well. But residents also need to understand, if they’re moving to an entertainment district, there’s sound here.”
The council’s Public Safety Committee was briefed on the matter in April, before the new City Council was elected. Whether Simpson gets his “bigger hammer” will ultimately be up to council members, who are in recess until August. The city is still figuring out a more efficient system for transferring noise complaints from 911 to code enforcement, whose officers have been working weekends to push the new enforcement strategy. Any changes to that strategy will take time.
In the meantime, businesses will need to interpret for themselves how not to offend anyone’s “ordinary sensibilities.” Especially those of the code enforcement employees who might show up at their door.