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A Quiet Place: Here’s what’s at stake as a task force reviews San Antonio’s noise ordinance

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The Lonesome Rose has stopped having live music on its outside stage after being approached by code compliance officers. - JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon
  • The Lonesome Rose has stopped having live music on its outside stage after being approached by code compliance officers.
Longtime San Antonio musician Roland Delacruz vividly remembers the city’s early ’90s noise crackdown that disrupted the St. Mary’s Strip during its boom years.

His band at the time, the Haskells, was trying to play a gig at outdoor venue Tycoon Flats when police showed up with noise meters. After officers threatened to write tickets to both the bar and the group, Delacruz and his bandmates cranked down the volume on their amps.

“They kept checking the meters, and it got to the point where cars driving by were louder than we were,” said Delacruz, who now plays in the rock band Pinky Ring. “When it gets to that level, it sort of becomes ‘What’s the point?’”

A feeling of déjà vu is setting in for Delacruz and other musicians and live music fans as a newly minted San Antonio task force considers possible changes to the municipal noise ordinance. People familiar with the discussions say they’re concerned the group may recommend setting arbitrarily low decibel levels for noise enforcement, limiting music venues’ hours or requiring special permits to stage certain types of performances.

The task force is meeting as the city evaluates a three-month pilot program kicked off in early October that dispatches a half-dozen code compliance officers Thursdays through Saturdays to respond to noise complaints called in from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

The results of that program are expected to play into the task force’s recommendations, which city council would likely vote on — either in the form of a revamped ordinance or changes to the way the city handles enforcement.

“That pilot program data is going to be crucial,” said Samantha Wickwire, who oversees zoning and planning for District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, who called for the creation of the task force. “That will help us understand if it’s even businesses or whether things like house parties are a bigger problem or if it’s just a few bad apples.”

Perry and then-District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño ordered the creation of the group earlier this year after they received complaints from neighborhood groups about noise emanating from nightlife areas in their districts. In Perry’s case, it was the bars around Broadway and Loop 410. In Trevino’s, it was the St. Mary’s Strip and Southtown.

Convenient scapegoats

It’s not lost on local musicians that much of the frustration over noise levels comes as gentrifying neighborhoods around the St. Mary’s Strip and other nightlife areas contend with parking issues, litter and bad behavior from clubgoers. Performers worry live music will end up being collateral damage as part of those cleanup efforts.

“It’s a situation where people moved into an area because it’s cool and hip, and now they’re worried about the noise and traffic,” said Chris Smart, a San Antonio musician whose resumé runs from early ’80s post-punk band Lung Overcoat to David Lynch collaborator Chrysta Bell. “So, where do they want us to play?”

Smart and others said the ticketing of venues and performers during the early ’90s contributed to the decline of the St. Mary’s Strip, whose fortunes were also marred by a pair of high-profile shootings and pressure from neighborhood groups. Only in the past decade has the entertainment district fully recovered from that decline.

Anyone who wants to live in the center city needs to expect they’ll be in for a noisier experience than if they buy a house in the suburbs, Smart said. While he lives in the normally quiet River Road enclave, he regularly hears wedding parties from nearby Brackenridge Park, he added.

David Uhler, president of longtime German American social club Beethoven Männerchor, said he’s concerned the task force could yield draconian new rules that stop his group from staging music in its beer garden, something it’s done since 1920.

He said the longtime King William fixture has tried to be responsive to its neighbors by shelling out several hundred dollars on its own noise meter and is even looking into creating a soundproof barrier to separate it from its nearest residential neighbors.

“I understand the frustration of the community,” said Uhler, who’s been attending task force meetings. “I just hope they can be a little patient with us as we sort things out.”

Of the 53,000 noise calls San Antonio police received from Jan. 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, just 3% were lodged against bars and venues, according to Uhler. He worries the task force recommendations could be driven not by those facts but by individual members with an ax to grind.

King William staple the Beethoven Männerchor has held live music performancess since 1920. - COURTESY PHOTO / BEETHOVEN MÄNNERCHOR
  • Courtesy Photo / Beethoven Männerchor
  • King William staple the Beethoven Männerchor has held live music performancess since 1920.
Task force resignation

Indeed, the task force has already had one high-profile departure from a member who’s voiced similar concerns.

Blayne Tucker, who owns The Mix and serves as president of the North St. Mary’s Business Owners Association, resigned from the group in an Oct. 20 email in which he complained about its lack of geographic diversity and willingness to compromise.

In the email, Tucker noted that, at the time of his departure, six of the city’s 10 districts had no representation on the task force. The group is “disproportionately comprised of individuals in district 1 who have very narrowly-focused disputes against specific establishments that reside in their immediate vicinity,” he added.

To Tucker’s point, eight of the task force’s 15 members are neighborhood representatives, while just four speak for businesses. The remaining three are city staffers.

“I fail to see the efficacy in allowing a task force consisting of folks who predominantly live near the city center [to speak for] residents and businesses in other parts of the greater San Antonio community, who lack any voice in this assessment,” Tucker wrote. “I fear that the lack of diversity on this task force will have a discriminatory impact, especially on folks in impoverished areas of the city.”

During the group’s Thursday, Oct. 28 meeting, the conversation was largely cordial and productive. Most of the Zoom gathering was devoted to hashing out processes, including the role city employees would play in decision making and how input from people not on the task force would be handled.

At one point, task force member Dawn Ann Larios, executive director of the San Antonio Restaurant Association, expressed frustration when one of the neighborhood members argued that city council gave her group more of a voice than residents.

However, others noted that businesses in the group were interested in doing the right thing.

“I don’t think we’re that far off on this stuff,” neighborhood representative John Brenneman said near the call’s conclusion.

‘Fucks with the vibe’

Despite that sentiment, some entertainment-district businesses said they’re already feeling the effects of a crackdown. They worry it may get worse.

The three-year-old Lonesome Rose, a honky tonk on the far south end of the St. Mary’s Strip, pulled the plug on early evening performances on its outdoor stage after a visit from code compliance officers three months ago.

After those officials pointed out that the bar’s zoning doesn’t specifically say it can stage outdoor performances, music became an inside-only option. While city staffers didn’t explain what prompted their visit, Lonesome Rose partner Garrett T. Capps said it came after the bar faced complaints from the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association.

“It does feel like we’re being targeted,” said Capps, who added that the Lonesome Rose is in dialogue with the association.

Capps is a touring alt-country musician who’s emerged as a musical ambassador for the Alamo City via albums such as his recently released I Love San Antone. He said it’s frustrating that as he and other musicians work to put the city on the map, they face the prospect of their gigs being limited by neighborhood pushback.

“It fucks with the vibe big-time,” he said. “Especially since San Antonio doesn’t have that many entertainment districts. … It’s an uphill battle to make music in San Antonio, no matter what the genre. It seems like we’re trying to wave our flag as a culturally rich city, but stuff like this really puts us back.”

Similarly, Beethoven Hall’s Uhler said his organization is smarting after receiving its first ticket under the pilot program. The penalty came after a group rented the beer garden for a private party and brought its own band, which showed up with way too much sound system for an outdoor gig.

“We regret that that happened, and we’re genuinely concerned about the situation,” he said.

Waiting game

In the meantime, musicians, fans and business owners are in a holding pattern as they wait for the pilot program to play out — and for the task force to make sense of the data. One possible outcome is that the task force recommends better enforcement of the existing statutes, said Wickwire with Councilman Perry’s office.

“Our first thought was ‘Maybe this is on our end,’” she said. “Maybe this is something we can fix in-house.”

District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, who inherited the task force from Treviño, his predecessor, said he understands residents don’t want their sleep interrupted by blaring sound systems. At the same time, he’s heard from bar owners who opted not to book live music because they’re worried about being ticketed.

“Live music is a great part of our culture,” Bravo said. “We’ve got to find a balance here.”

That sentiment was echoed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg in an emailed statement supplied to the Current.

“There has to be a balance between maintaining a high quality of life in the neighborhoods and a vibrant live music scene,” the mayor said. “I look forward to thoroughly evaluating the task force’s recommendations.” 

Meanwhile, musicians like Delacruz still remember the overzealous noise enforcement of the early ’90s, and it’s something they’re not eager to live through again. Especially as they try to get back to normal after the pandemic put the brakes on live performances for more than year.

“Now that a little normality is back and we’re starting to play again, this makes it kind of rough,” Delacruz said.

It’s easy to understand residents’ frustration with parking snarls, litter and shouting drunks at 2 a.m. But, to Delacruz’s point, pulling the plug on live music isn’t exactly going to remedy those problems.

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