Young and Hungry

Dupont Circle Citizens Take on Loud Nightclubs, One Decibel Reading at a Time

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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.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo of Sarah Peck by Darrow Montgomery

  • Corky

    What a bunch of assholes.

  • Northwesterner

    Why would the City Paper give any publicity to this bunch of homophobic creeps? They need to crawl back under their holes with Fred Phelps and others. Creeps!

  • sarah peck, really?

    sarah peck is an imbecile and i am ashamed that she would ever represent my country abroad. awful that fine institutions like the department of state and the u.s.-pakistan women's council would be tarnished with such a waste of oxygen.

  • Stephen

    These people need to get a life...

  • Move to the suburbs

    if you object to open air dance clubs move to fairfax. peace and quiet, nice quiet strip malls that close early. nothing to do but watch cable and water the lawn. no annoying young folks who want to dance late at night on weekends

  • Jeff

    (1) Can we stop with "move to the suburbs" anytime someone objects to some activity you approve of? Grow up.
    (2) It seems perfectly reasonable to want to sleep at night. If you are going to have clubs mixed into a residential neighborhood, shouldn't there be noise ordinances that are enforced?

  • Peter

    People have lived in the Palladium and other buildings south of Dupont Circle long before the clubs opened, or built roof decks that blast sound illegally into the neighborhood. Why should long time residents be driven from their homes? Let the clubs go to the suburbs--or the country where they can make as much noise as they want!

    As to the coward who wrote snarky comments about Sarah Peck's role as a diplomat, let me say this. She risked her life serving our country in Afghanistan. She survived rocket attacks, gun fire and risked death every time she traveled around the country. I doubt you have done anything braver than cross a street.

    You are useless coward who hides behind anonymous comments. Before you denigrate other's service on your behalf, you should serve yourself and see what it is like. But I doubt you have the guts.

  • True That

    Jeff and Peter I agree. North, how are these people be homophobic? Is it because they want to get some sleep at night. Tolerance is a two way street. There is a middle ground and it sounds like both sides are working to find it. Good luck to all involved

  • Meljos

    Homophobic? Assholes? Wow! All we are aking is that the city enforce the law. It's the law! I am sure the people of Georgetown are called the same names when they shut down the house party next door.(Yet, by teenagers!) How dare those people move next to a University. They knew there were college kids in the neighborhood! How dare them expect to sleep at night! What were they thinking?

    Oh, and I love the quote by Michael Fonseca, "If regulators enforce the law, we will comply." How kind of a businees and lawyer to follow the law. What a nice gesture. I hope they also follow the law when it comes to food spoilage, underage drinking and fire code. I didn't realize businesses could pick and choose what laws they follow. But hey, maybe that depends on if the laws are being enforced. Because the way I see it in Dupont Circle South, laws are optional. Clubs have the option of following them and the police have the option of enforcing them. In DC, it all depends on your address.

  • erik

    Odd that they say nothing of the public urination and drug use and focus on the sound levels instead. Sound can be dealt with or countered, the smell of urine cannot be masked.

    They should be doing the readings from the door and roof of their building(s) not from the commercial alleys behind the clubs.

    However, I don't see anything wrong with their goals. It's not about the laws, however, it's about businesses being good neighbors.

  • Beatbox

    My guess is that those defending the clubs and trashing these people are recent transplants? Open-air roof top clubs? That is something relatively new and I can totally see fighting that.

  • Not in Kansas

    Brava!

  • Derek

    I am torn on this issue: if the clubs are technically disobeying a city ordinance I agree, then the District should enforce those rules. But at the same time, maybe you should expect some of these issues if you decide to move to the 18th & Conn area?

  • districtwanderer

    “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.”

    JFC. Give this lady some plastic handcuffs and let her make a citizen's arrest if she must. Some people will always be the "hall monitor" I guess. Must be a fun neighbor.

    It's baffling how a person has the capacity to care so much about something trivial that admittedly has very little adverse affect on her.

  • Tired of the BS

    Find something else to be angry about, instead of trolling outside of places that make people happy!

  • LOL

    *Old people standing over the rubble of a closed club*

    "We did it guys! Another place shut down!"

  • John Urinal

    Saw something really smart in London in an area with a lot of bars and clubs - free, open-air urinals. They are like porto-potties but are open and have four urinals on each corner. Not convenient for ladies but still better than nothing.

  • Reality Check 2014

    A few things:
    1.) Bravo Bravo is not near any residential area, and is no where in close proximity (of sound) to where the "sound detectors" live, so why are they at clubs whose noise wouldn't affect them, testing decibel levels?
    2.) I agree that a rooftop party blasting music is not fair or reasonable to neighbors, but trolling around alleys behind clubs at night is utterly ridiculous. The decibels should be testing from where they live and CLAIM they cannot sleep, not from the door of a club.
    3.) Has it ever occurred to the noise detection coalition that maybe why the noise is bothering them so much is truly because they are home bored and miserable on a Saturday night while everyone else is having fun? If they had better things to do than conduct noise patrol investigations, the issue would never exist. These are the same type of people who would call the police on their neighbors if they had a house party.
    4.) I workout at a gym where the neighbors complained that the music was too loud in one of the rooms where classes were performed. The gym even offered his fat miserable behind a free membership and he refused. The police did a decibel check and the sound was far within regulation. He jerk eventually sold his house and moved to be miserable somewhere else. Nothing has changed at the gym. Lesson? People are going to be miserable and want others to be miserable with them, so party on, enjoy yourselves, and live the lives these jerks obviously don't have!!!

    CHEERS!!!

  • Chris

    THESE PEOPLE ARE AMERICAN HEROES AND THEY DESERVE YOUR RESPECT!!!!

  • corey

    old people get out of dc, you're too old

  • Cathy

    BTW, when several rooftop clubs crank up their amps, neighbors don't hear music. They hear a very loud mash up of noise with a mashup of heavy basses, each with its own beat. This is not like listening to a great jam session at 3 a.m. or a spectacular rock concert. This isn't music. This is extremely loud noise.

  • Kevin

    Chris, they are "AMERICAN HEROS"? Seriously? Why? I think they are simply busybodies with too much time on their hands.

    Dupont Circle area has been a entertainment and nightlife district for longer than any of us have been alive. Every noise issue is hyperlocal and some places are over the top with the sounds coming from their places, for sure, but most of the time I think people who scream about this stuff need to just STFU. You live in the city. Deal with it.

  • doot mcgoot

    wow.. I've met Abigail Nichols and her husband Carl before. sweet people, but definitely old coots. they have lived in Dupont for longer than all of these clubs have been there. I sympathize - but hey, this seems to give them something to do with themselves.

    Ms. Peck just seems completely obnoxious and insufferable. of course her job is to lead a mission to fix another country.. "..and then I come back here to the United States capital, and they’re not even enforcing their own laws.” *gag*

    just a bunch of busy bodies in the heart of the action. completely agree with the comments above stating that if the noise isn't personally bothering these folks, that they should let the nightlife revelers enjoy themselves.

  • AlbuterolGonzales

    Such assholes. And "long-time residents," my ass. If they moved here so many years ago, I would think the noise might have forced them out long ago.

    Jeff, you're an asshole. This is a city. And maybe you live in leafy, suburban ward, but those parts of DC are a stain on the rest. Fuck single-family homes. This isn't goddamn Virginia.

  • N Streeter

    This isn't about the noise coming from the establishment folks. I'm a resident in the area and know one of the people listed in this article. The issue is some of the drunks leaving in the middle of the night. They're often loud and annoying. I admit we all moan and groan about this. What this group is trying to do is to put all of the bars and restaurants that serve alcohol out of business rather than work with the district agencies regarding patrons being disruptive in the wee morning hours. I believe they were part of the group that kept Hank's on Q Street from expanding it's beautiful outdoor dining expansion. Remember that it doesn't mean a thing to these people if we have fun food and dining options in the city. To them, none of this is a factor of what makes a city great to them. I hate to add on to other similar comments but truthfully, these folks would be happier living in a leafy suburb. The dynamics of what makes a great urban city are not in their interest. Show up to these ABRA meetings and make your voices heard. Rest assured, they will.

  • Saras

    Folks that care to be really informed about the reality of this noise coalition should know some of the background. For each business in the area that has a rooftop or outside space, Sarah, Abigail, and many others have engaged with the businesses as neighbors to seek out realistic ways to keep the noise within the legal limits of this multi-purpose neighborhood. When they are ignored, we as residents have to turn to the DC govt to enforce the laws that exist; and up until recently, these efforts were also ignored. Protesting the alcohol licenses for these businesses isn't intended to be malicious - it's the ONLY formal way that neighbors can engage with these businesses in a way that they will pay attention. There is literally no other recourse.
    That said - all of the people that have been involved are a real life-saver for those of us that live in the neighborhood and they do represent a diverse crowd and age group that are greatly affected by this noise - but many of us are unable to break away from work or other obligations to attend the dozens of repetitive meetings that addressing this requires. They spend a lot of personal time and energy on something that is a real problem for all of us - if you were waking up in the middle of the night to a lot of unnecessary noise you would be thankful to have them around. My husband and I love going to several of the bars down the street... but they don't need to have their rooftop noise registering at deafening levels to be awesome. And asking them to turn it down doesn't affect their value as businesses or contributors to the fun environment of the neighborhood.

    For those of you who use these comment boards to say nasty things and make assumptions about people you don't know - let up a little and remember that there is always more to the story than what a reporter can fit in a few paragraphs. And if you really are that hateful and angry get some counseling!

  • tntdc

    These outdoor rooftop nightclubs are a new thing and if someone put one next to my home blaring music all night I'd complain too.

    If someone doesn't like living where there's a noise limit law they should move to someplace where there's not one.

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  • Corky

    I repeat--assholes!! You live in the city, you should expect some noise. These NIMBY's are no different than the people who move along major commuter routes into the city and complain about the traffic. For people who moved here just a few years ago and wonder why traffic and buses are so awful on 16th Street, it is because the people who moved along the other North South commuter streets about 10-15 years ago bitched about the traffic on 13th, 11th, 14th Streets and GA and New Hampshire Aves. DC slowed the traffic on these streets, put in traffic medians, stop signs on every block and allowed residential parking during rush hour. Guess what happened? The commuters moved to 16th Street and created massive gridlock. Thanks to the people who moved into the city and bitched about traffic--they made it worse!! Just wait until these bars are forced to close by these jerks and move to your neighborhood.

  • Northwesterner

    Outdoor rooftop night clubs are NOT a new thing- get a grip carpetbaggers and newcomers- We used to go to rooftop parties at Adams Morgan restaurants... I went as early as 1989, but they were going on in the mid 1980s. I was eating on rooftops and friends were DJing a LOT circa 1992-94. You people making these "pronouncements" are laughably WRONG. You are a laughingstock and the City Paper has released your names to the general public. A laughingstock.

  • Northwesterner

    The people who lead this attack on businesses have to know that this article will be what future employers see when they google their names after they submit their resumes. What do you think that business owner is going to do when they read this? Offer them jobs? Is that what they think will happen?

  • Mario

    So sad. They could be using all this time and their no-doubt considerable resources to help truly vulnerable people. Instead they choose to protect and enhance their housing values. What a waste of their, at least seemingly, selfish lives. No one will remember or care about their "work" in 10 years when they cash out and move to Chevy Chase.

  • Betsy Donahoe

    I live in Adams Morgan where on Friday and Saturday nights the drunks are screaming and yelling and having a good time. None of this bothers me. Even when they wake me up out of a sound sleep. I used to be them. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. One night the music was so loud it rattled my windows, so I went out and danced. DuPont Circle has many clubs. It's in the middle of a city. Why shouldn't it be noisy with rooftop bars and dance clubs? People who are so upset about noise shouldn't live near late night businesses. Move to Cleveland Park.

  • chris lee

    I am on the side of the night lifers. The neighborhoods are characteristically noisy and busy. These people aim to kill it. The greater good is served by SOME areas being designated as noisier than most. I was born in NYC in the 60s and know people who lived above some of the legendary rock and dance clubs of the day. The city is served by having designated "celebration zones"..it's not like it's a surprise to housing seekers that this area is busy.

  • Duponter

    DC has no designated "celebration" zones. What these nightclubs are in fact doing is stealing the acoustic airspace around them for their own selfish purposes and driving away other landowners and tenants. More importantly, what these nightclubs are doing is violating DC noise ordinances. It's not surprising that these organizations that so blatantly break the law are also associated with virtually all of the late night murders in the Dupont Circle - Farragut North corridor for the past few years.

    If these nightclubs want to generate this level of noise to do business, then they should be required, at a minimum, to purchase the 20 acres of real estate around themselves that they make uninhabitable, and to pay increased franchise fees for the extra police and street cleaning required to deal with the drunken crowds.

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