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The music emanating from the rooftop at Dupont’s RoseBar Lounge just after midnight one recent Sunday morning is an indiscernible muffled hum. All that can be heard outside the back of the lounge is the discord of overlapping house music beats through the speakers, with occasionally intelligible lyrics about fulfilling a woman’s fantasy. The repetitive beats were presumably meant to inspire high-energy dance moves, but Carl Nelson, a retired engineer, isn’t dancing. He is, however, smiling as he stands in his oversized puffy winter jacket in front of the wired gate in the alley behind the club.
“You hear that drum?” he asks me as he pumps his fist forward to the sound of the beat. “That’s a low-frequency sound. Low-frequency sounds propagate further.”
Nelson takes a reading from his sound meter—which the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs lent to him—and finds the decibel level is around 80. That’s significantly higher than D.C.’s legal limit of 60 decibels in a commercial zone at night, the level of a normal conversation. Still, Nelson’s happy with the reading: The sound coming from RoseBar, according to Nelson’s extensive documentation, typically measures at 90 decibels, and he takes partial credit for the drop.
This has become a typical bar-hopping weekend night for Nelson and his wife, Abigail Nichols, who also happens to be a commissioner on the Dupont Advisory Neighborhood Commission. But they’re not just out to party (though they mix in some drinks and dancing, too). Instead, they’re the main members of the D.C. Nightlife Noise Coalition, a Dupont watchdog group that goes out late to track which bars and clubs are exceeding the legal limits. The group has already had reason to celebrate: This month, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration announced its noise task force with DCRA and the Metropolitan Police Department would launch a new campaign to more actively enforce the D.C. Noise Control Act. Members of the task force now go out to check for noise disturbances up to four times a week, up from two times a month previously. The success of this new campaign has yet to be realized, according to members of the coalition.
“I’m trying to do the work that the city should be doing, that people who get a paycheck from the city should be doing,” Sarah Peck, a founding member of the coalition and State Department employee, said when the campaign first launched.
Peck also participates in these nights out in Dupont. The three of them say they’ve gone out on sound-measuring expeditions more than a dozen times in the past six months, with the occasional other resident joining them. They all live in the Palladium Condominium at 1325 18th St. NW, near the area the Dupont ANC dubbed Club Central a few years ago, south of Dupont Circle around Connecticut Avenue, where bars like RoseBar, Ozio Restaurant & Lounge, and Public Bar DC are located. Nelson and Nichols installed noise-absorbent panels in their apartment and aren’t often bothered by the sound anymore, and Peck says until this past weekend, she hadn’t been awakened by excessive noise since November. Still, they argue, the noise has become far worse since an increasing number of establishments have added rooftop dance floors in recent years. And other Palladium residents, particularly those with units in front of the building, say they have are frequently kept up by excessive noise.
“For me, it [hadn’t] been a problem in a bit,” Peck says. “I’m doing this because I want the law to be complied with.”
* * *
The trio knows their way around Club Central. After monitoring the noise at RoseBar and Midtown Lounge, we cut through another back alley that smells of marijuana, passing a man hovering over a woman urinating in a corner. They say nothing as we walk by. All the noise patrols gather as Nelson takes a reading of the sound coming from Ozio Martini & Cigar Lounge. The verdict: About 70 decibels from the rear.
“Wow! They really turned this down from last week,” Peck says.
“Great,” says Nichols.
Wow,” says Nelson. “They’ve gotten the message.”
Next up, we travel to the front of the bars on Connecticut Avenue, squeezing our way through packed sidewalks of drunk people underdressed for this crisp March night. As we walk, Nelson asks me if I can tell where the sound is coming from. I sheepishly point to Public Bar, the closest bar to me. “That’s the problem,” he says excitedly. “When they are all playing together, no one is guilty.”
Between the sound meter, my notepad, and the three noise patrollers—who wouldn’t give their ages because they didn’t want this to come off as a “grumpy old-person problem,” but who all appear to be old enough for that to be a possible concern—we elicit some questions from the masses on the sidewalk and chary stares from the bouncers. But the trio is friendly and, when asked, explain what they’re up to.
“How’s business going?” Nichols asks the bouncer manning the door at Heist, who doesn’t say much in response. “Thanks for keeping the door closed.”
Though they are singularly focused on the sound-minimizing mission, they do try to have a good time. They’ve had a drink and a dance in Ozio in the past, and on this particular night we try to get into Bravo Bravo, a dance club near Farragut Square. We wait in line after 1 a.m. but bail upon learning there’s a $10 cover. Instead, they chat with the two off-duty D.C. police officers hired to stand outside the club. At the end of their banter about noise in the area, Nichols asks me to snap a picture on her phone of the group with the police officers.
“That was just for fun,” Nichols says. “We are out here so often and we forget to take pictures.”
Fun aside, their efforts so far have largely been successful. The noise at the bars, at least this particular March weekend, has gone down, according to their recordings. And this past Saturday, Peck even got Vincent Orange, the mayoral candidate and at-large D.C. councilmember who chairs the Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, to make the rounds with her and another Palladium resident.
“The coalition came, they testified it was a problem, so here I am,” Orange says a little after midnight as we head to the back alley of RoseBar. “If I were purchasing one of those condos, I’d be very concerned,” he says, referring to the 70-unit condo complex under construction next to the Tabard Inn on N Street NW. The developer of the condo, Steve Coniglio, supports the neighborhood anti-noise coalition and its mission, the coalition boasted in a press release in February.
The residents of the coalition have also lodged liquor license protests against six of these establishments on the grounds that they are exceeding the legal noise limits. One protest hearing for Ozio on March 19 lasted a marathon seven hours as the bar owners and the protestants called at least three witnesses each to testify about noise. Peck represented the residents and called on Nelson and Nichols as witnesses. Nelson explained all the readings he took with his sound meter.
“The problem is that Ozio is blasting 101 decibels of pounding, pulsing, DJ spun music into historic Dupont Circle,” the protest statement reads. “101 decibels is loud—it is the sound of a jet taking off.” (That’s the sound of a jet taking off if you stand 1,000 feet away, according to a Purdue University calculation.) The coalition took that reading from inside the Ozio roofdeck, anyway. The statement says the sound coming from the club most severely impacts the residents of Jefferson Row Condominiums, which is a half-block away from Ozio and advertised by its developer as a “quaint haven.” But according to the statement, “Jefferson Row is no quaint haven at 1:30 on a weekend when Ozio is operating its open-air dance club.” Nelson testified that the sound measured 72.4 from the roof of Jefferson Row. An ABRA investigator, who did not use a sound measuring meter, evaluated the noise at Ozio as part of the protest and determined that the bar did not disturb the peace or violate any ABRA regulations. (ABRA can determine whether a liquor-licensed establishment is disruptive, but the actual decibel limit is a DCRA regulation.)
Tension between residents and resident owners because of noise is nothing new, and the problem has only exacerbated as the city rapidly redevelops. Ozio, for instance, is one of many establishments that has hired a pricey sound consultant to determine the maximum volume they can have on their rooftop so the sound won’t exceed 60 decibels outside the building.
The lawyer for Ozio, Michael Fonseca, says noise isn’t a major problem at the establishment and that if regulators enforce the law, the bar will comply.
Ultimately, it’s up to the government, not citizen groups, to check this out. A spokeswoman for ABRA says officials from the agency have met with the coalition, but it has also heard from ANCs and other civic associations. There’s a hotline set up for noise complaints, though, and the changes that ABRA made to its noise task force were a result of all this input.
“They are putting everything into this battle against Ozio, that’s just way out of proportion,” says Fonseca, whose firm also represents Public Bar. “You can enforce the law without taking away someone’s license and changing their livelihood…That’s the scary part, it’s getting vindictive.”
Skip Coburn, the director of the D.C. Nightlife Association, says 60 decibels just isn’t a realistic volume level for a bar, club, or even a restaurant. That’s not true, according to Peck: Just don’t put any speakers in an open environment, like a rooftop.
And Peck, who says she has already missed four days of work to attend various hearings, doesn’t seem to be backing down. It’s irrelevant whether the noise personally bothers her or not; there is a law on the books and she says it needs to be enforced. Peck previously served as a diplomat for more than a year in Afghanistan, where she worked on rule of law issues in the turbulent country.
“But that’s Afghanistan,” she says. “And then I come back here to the United States capital, and they’re not even enforcing their own laws.”
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Photo of Sarah Peck by Darrow Montgomery