Unlike any other part of the city, the strip of South Howard Avenue between Kennedy and Bayshore known as SoHo has embodied the concept of a livable environment where people can actually see and do a variety of things without having to get into their automobiles. There are more choices than ever in the neighborhood, which got a boost late last year with the opening of the Epicurean Hotel and its Èlevage restaurant. And just a few blocks to the north, construction is underway on the $40 million Post SoHo development at Swann and Howard, which will consist of 231 one- and two-bedroom units, 10,000 square feet of retail, a parking garage and a new restaurant, Ava, co-owned by Rays manager Joe Maddon.
But while residents fret about what all that could mean for traffic on the narrow two-lane avenue, the biggest sources of angst for other SoHo denizens aren’t the new developments but the existing bars and nightclubs located close to their homes, especially those that crank up the volume after 10 p.m.
“The noise issue is horrific,” complains Paula Stahel, who has lived in Hyde Park for over three decades and on Albany Avenue since 1989. Stahel is happy “that there is so much to walk to,” referring to coffee shops, retail and the Publix Greenwise grocery store. But the profusion of nightclubs on Howard north of Swann has made it less livable for some in recent years.
City Councilman Harry Cohen says that Tampa is a victim of its own success. With the growth of the SoHo entertainment district come concomitant problems with parking, traffic and noise.
Cohen breaks down the area into three different constituencies: those like Stahel who live in close proximity to bars and restaurants; those a little farther south on Howard, for whom parking and occasional intrusions by inebriated clubgoers are problems; and the business owners who want to maximize their profits, which can mean late hours and live music acts.
“There’s clearly tensions between the different groups,” he admits.
Adam Smith, 26, moved into a beautiful two-story home on Azeele Street in the summer of 2012. A native of Chicago who knows noise is a part of living in the big city, he didn’t have a problem for the first year in his Tampa digs. But things got uncomfortable for him and his girlfriend last fall, when loud music from the nearby World of Beer became a serious problem, shaking the walls of his home. He called the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, but he says a few months passed before agency officials took any sound level readings. Unsatisfied by that episode, he purchased a sound monitor of his own to register the noise levels, which were higher than the legal limit. In early December he came upon a TPD officer in the neighborhood, who he claims told him, “There’s nothing I can do. It’s your fault for moving here.”
Feeling completely flummoxed, he reached out to his father, Michael, a Chicago community organizer. He told his son to get the community involved. So Smith began canvassing the neighborhood with a petition stating that on a recent Friday evening the noise level had reached levels of 92 decibels, 37 decibels over the legal limit. The petition called on tavern owners to obey the law and for Tampa police to enforce the law. He gathered 77 signatures in three days.
Tampa’s noise ordinance states that outside of downtown, Channelside and Ybor City, the decibel level cannot go over 65 dBC after 10 p.m. at night. But giving residents and the police another tool was an ordinance passed last year that, in addition to banning “unreasonably excessive” noise from automobiles, also forbade “plainly audible noises” from 100 feet away. Though it was the first part of the law that made headlines, the second part enables the police to determine if an automobile, homeowner or business establishment is creating a nuisance without the ambiguities of ambient noise distorting the reading.
Smith then had several interactions with Seth Kapp, the manager of World of Beer. After the police came by and warned Kapp to keep the sound down, he gave Smith his phone number to text him if the noise was ever a problem. That arrangement worked well for a while, Smith says, but then the club moved its music stage farther to the east and closer to Smith’s home. More complaints followed.
Since then, WOB has changed its schedule of live music from 9 p.m.-1 a.m. to 6-10 p.m. Kapp left a voicemail message for CL, in which he said that the club would not officially comment on the noise, but that WOB had been “totally compliant with our neighbors,” adding that the club installed its own noise meters before the police began auditing.
Smith and his girlfriend say that the noise is not a major problem anymore, though they can occasionally hear from their balcony WOB bartenders telling customers that he’s the man responsible for turning off the music at the club. On St. Patrick’s Day someone broke a beer bottle on Smith’s door, prompting him to install a video taping system.
“We’re trying to find the balance between the business and the residents,” says Tampa Police Department’s Paul Driscoll, commander of District 1, which encompasses South Howard. He says the TPD has had to give out the most citations to The DrYnk SoHo, the nightclub at the corner of Howard and Platt Streets.
DrYnk is the source of much angst for other residents — like Jason Gibbons, who says he loves the food, culture, entertainment and movies that are all within walking distance of his home in the SoHo area. But Gibbons, who manages a company that distributes human capital management software, said that there’s been a “dramatic increase” in noise from DrYnk since the beginning of the year, essentially since the club reopened after making renovations back in December. Since then, he says, it’s been “a debacle.” He doesn’t accept the fact that because he lives near these clubs he has to accept being kept up late at nights.
“How is it that I’m held to accountability with the products I sell and distribute when these guys can just do whatever they want?” he asks about DrYnk management. He complains that it’s no longer safe in his neighborhood, and believes it’s only a matter of time before somebody does something irresponsible.
In March DrYnk was given four written warnings before finally being fined the fifth time inspectors came out to measure the noise. The club later received another violation. As of press time CL was unable to reach DrYnk management.
One group of business owners who receive praise for the way they run their clubs are the folks in the Ciccio Restaurant Group (CRG), whose South Tampa mini-empire includes Ciccio’s, Water, Green Lemon, Daily Eats, and The Lodge, all farther down Howard than DrYnk and WOB.
“We don’t play any music outside the Lodge after 9 p.m.,” says co-owner James Lanza, a change that was made after local residents complained about the noise.
“It actually upsets me how other places have no compassion for our neighbors,” he says upon learning of the tumult farther up Howard. “If I was a neighbor, I’d be really upset. Some people have compassion and sensitivity, and some people don’t.” He says he and his business partners live in SoHo and thinks that makes a difference as far as getting along with their neighbors.
City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern says Tampa needs to enforce its existing regulations. She believes that in recent years there have been too many approvals for alcoholic establishments, but that the current council is committed to correcting the situation. She thinks a moratorium on establishments that feature more drinking than eating is in order.
It should be noted that since Smith acted and got the police involved, many in the area concede that the noise isn’t so bad anymore.
“I honestly think it’s gotten slightly quieter, due to the fines,” says April Wilson, who moved to the area in 1976. “I still love this neighborhood. I can walk to get sushi, I can walk to get a drink. It’s a little city within a city.”
“You can’t always legislate your way out of a problem,” Councilman Cohen maintains. “Sometimes it requires people just simply using common sense and acting as a good neighbor to try to come together. It’s not so much that we legislate a solution, it’s that we get the parties together and we work something out. That’s really the best model.”