Mike McGinn, Square Neighbors, and the Real Threat to Seattle Nightlife

Is the mayoral candidate’s pledge to save nightlife from newcomers addressing a problem or an urban myth?

McGinn has emerged as the favored candidate of the creative class.

Anyone who’s been in Seattle over the past decade knows how it works. A new condo building goes up in a neighborhood where there are clubs. Maybe the condo even plays up the nearby nightlife scene as a selling point to potential residents. Buyers embrace the urban lifestyle, put down their money, move in… and immediately start complaining about the noise and trying to get the clubs shut down.

So when mayoral candidate Mike McGinn announced a slate of proposals last week for helping the city’s nightlife thrive, he got lots of attention for throwing down the gauntlet. One of his proposals: “New residential development must not be able to drive out existing nightlife establishments.”

As McGinn explained in an interview with KUOW: “This is more a kind of principle. When you move into a neighborhood where there is existing nightlife, and there is existing noise, [there should be] a recognition that it exists, and it’s not necessarily appropriate to say, ‘Now it’s too loud and it should be moved out.'”

Given McGinn’s overall orientation toward fostering density in urban areas, it might seem as though this principle could significantly change the culture of the city. But the truth is that the problem being addressed may be mostly an urban myth. Without question, neighbors sometimes complain about club noise. But neither McGinn nor others consulted by Seattle Weekly could come up with incidents of new-building residents chasing off existing clubs.

One of the most notorious, oft-cited battles, for example, was at the Pomeroy building in Belltown, where a few years ago entrepreneurs sought to open a lounge on the ground floor. Residents of the building, fearful of potential noise, complained to the city and forced the owners of the venue, called Twist, to sign an agreement that they wouldn’t have live music, among other restrictions. In that instance, however, the club was the newcomer. Residents had already been in the building for more than five years.

Another of the famous fights was over the Blue Moon, just east of I-5 in the University District, which the Nickels administration targeted for shut-down in 2006. But there had been no new condos nearby, and neighbors weren’t the ones complaining. “It was the city,” recalls David Osgood, Seattle’s go-to attorney for bars and nightclubs under siege. Indeed, as Seattle Weekly reported at the time, neighborhood groups supported the Moon, which the city maintained was a den of drug dealing.

Asked last week if he could recall any instances in which new residential development led to complaints and pressure to close an existing club, Osgood replied: “Where the club was there first? I can’t think of anything. It’s the clubs that come and go fairly frequently.” Osgood said that in his experience it’s more often the cops who are behind closure efforts.

Dave Meinert, a longtime Seattle music activist and impresario who is strongly backing McGinn, says the picture is more mixed. “‘Has a venue actually been closed due to newdevelopment?’ I’m not sure,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But has new development impacted andnegatively affected venues, to the point of at least one, Twist, nothaving music? The answer is yes. And could any of these cases[have] completely closed the business had the [nightlife] community not been active? Forsure.”

Osgood has not chosen a side in the mayoral race. Meinert, meanwhile, is hosting a “music community” fundraiser for McGinn at the Crocodile this Wednesday night. (King County Executive candidate Dow Constantine and City Attorney candidate Pete Holmes will also be beneficiaries of the event.) Meinert describes McGinn’s proposals, which were officially released Wednesday morning, Sept. 23, as “the most specific, most supportive positions any candidate for mayor in Seattle has ever taken in favor of music and nightlife.”

Probably the most specific idea floated by McGinn was that “any new development within the proximity of an existing bar or club should be required to build soundproofing measures into their plans.” Land-use attorney Peter Buck, who most recently represented strip-club magnate Roger Forbes in a successful fight against the Mariners, notes that any such rule would need city council approval. But, he adds, “Trying to protect a user from another user is definitely a concept in the code. It’s an intriguing idea, and worth exploring.”

McGinn also said that, to reduce noise and trouble, the city “should work with the state Liquor Control Board to encourage staggered closing times of bars and clubs.” McGinn’s idea is not that clubs would keep serving after 2 a.m., but that they wouldn’t push everyone out onto the street simultaneously. In an interview with Seattle Weekly, McGinn said closing time is “a licensing issue” for clubs, and that’s why the State Liquor Board would need to be involved. How many clubs will want to keep a bunch of drunk patrons—to whom they are now selling only low-margin Red Bulls—hanging around their establishments is an open question.

Probably McGinn’s most fanciful declaration was that “transportation choices such as light rail, taxi service, and buses need to be accessible until at least 3 a.m.” On follow-up, he admits he has no particular plan for how Metro—which is run by King County and already facing huge cutbacks—could afford to start offering club kids 3 a.m. rides. “What I’m saying is this is something important to take into consideration as we return that bus service,” he says.

Even before he publicly issued his nightlife proposals, McGinn had become the favored candidate of the creative class. And the fundraiser for him—featuring the Presidents of the United States of America, joined by former Nirvana bassist (and current Daily Weekly columnist) Krist Novoselic—was already in the works. But the proposals seem to have further endeared him to a voting bloc that may not always sweat the details.

“Drinking and transportation til 3?!? YES! I am down,” wrote Seattle DJ Macklemore on his blog “Out for Stardom” in a post entitled “McGinn likes to PARTY!”

[Novoselic gave his thoughts earlier this week.]

McGinn is also the favored candidate among the pro-density wing of Seattle greenies. But his proposals last week only partly acknowledge the potential collision between these goals.

After all, it wasn’t whiny condo dwellers who leveled the clubs on the 500 block of Pine Street. It was the property owners who sold and the developers who bought—all doing exactly what they were supposed to under the urban-density ethos: leveling one-story commercial shacks to make way for multistory mixed use. In the process, some of the existing clubs were relocated (Bimbo’s, the Cha-Cha, Pony) and some disappeared (Kincora Pub, Manray). (Ultimately, the developers pulled back; the block is currently a gravel heap.)

Elsewhere, rumors have circulated for years that the First Avenue building housing the Showbox is going to be leveled to make way for condos. Obviously, in the current economy, that’s not likely to happen soon. But given that so many Seattle clubs—including the Crocodile itself—are located in exactly the kind of low-rent, low-slung buildings that are ripe for redevelopment, it may turn out that the campaign for more density is a far greater threat to Seattle’s nightclubs than pissy neighbors will ever be.


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