Donna Davis doesn’t need to step outside to hear live bands at Century Center across the street: She can feel the music inside her house.
“I equate it to being in a box and someone pounding on the outside of the box,” said Davis, who lives on the southwest corner of Albany Avenue and 13th Street. “It reverberates inside the house. My windows will rattle, and I hear it inside the walls.”
Davis, who has lived in her River West neighborhood home since 1978, has spent the past several years trying to reduce the noise coming from the Century Center. Bend Radio Group began hosting its outdoor summer concert series five years ago in the center’s parking lot. The center is also home to GoodLife Brewing Company, which hosts outdoor shows in its backyard, and Volcanic Theatre Pub, which hosts some form of entertainment — live music, theater or film screenings — almost nightly.
While the Century Center, the focus of ongoing mediation meetings with the River West Neighborhood Association and the subject of an online petition in support of outdoor music, has received the most attention recently, noise complaints about live music persist citywide.
And with a City Council reluctant to spend time or money addressing noise issues, it’s up to music venues and the people who live near them to figure out how to share space and the sound waves that fill it.
“I’m not just a little old lady who doesn’t like music,” Davis said. “I’ve been to lots of concerts. I’ve never been to one this close to a residential neighborhood.”
Concerts in a neighborhood
Not all River West neighbors are troubled by the music coming from Century Center. Bill More, who has rented a home directly across from the Century Center on Commerce Avenue for the past year and a half, said the people complaining about shows are just “looking to pick fights.”
“It’s absurd. I go out at night and read my book until 11 o’clock,” he said. “Even last night, I went out and there was a show (at Volcanic Theatre Pub), and I had to strain at the fence to hear anything.”
Tina Reisfar, who lives a half-block from the Century Center, said it’s a lot better than the wood products factory that ran day and night when she bought her home in 1995.
“You could hear the forklifts inside beeping all night long — you know, the backup beep — and there were semis delivering things in the alley at Commerce (Avenue) all night long, trucks driving in and out of our neighborhood delivering things,” she said. “There was sawdust all over everything in the neighborhood because it was a dirty factory. It was obnoxious. It was like living in an industrial zone.”
But for neighbors who are troubled by the sound of music venues, part of the noise problem comes from these venues’ proximity to residential areas, said Bill Bernardy, a member of the Bend Neighborhood Coalition, a political lobbying group that wants the city to rewrite its noise ordinance and issue fewer variances.
Performances close to homes simply can’t meet Bend’s noise ordinance, which limits noise in residential zones to 65 decibels — about the sound of a regular conversation — between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and 60 decibels — the sound of background music or conversation in a restaurant or office — after 10 p.m., Bernardy said.
The limit increases to 70/65 — twice as loud as 60 decibels and the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner — in commercial zones and 75/70 — the sound of a busy freeway from 50 feet away — in industrial zones. Mixed-use zones, like the one Century Center is in, aren’t specifically addressed in Bend’s noise ordinance, which was last amended in 2012.
Musicians who want to play louder or longer can apply to the city of Bend for a noise variance, and nearly all of the 50 applications submitted since Jan. 1 have been approved. A city policy enacted last year requires City Manager Eric King to consider factors, including neighbor input, the number of increased decibels and prior complaints at the same location. The Bend City Council is expected to review that policy at a work session this month.
Promoters cited for excess noise are barred from applying for variances for the next year. That’s what happened to Bend Radio Group in 2016.
Owner Jim Gross hadn’t applied for a variance in 2016 because, after conversations with city officials, he thought the city wanted to pursue a sound analysis.
“They seemed to be interested in terms of doing some sound analysis to figure out where sound is going and how much sound is going where, because how can you mitigate sound if you don’t have a map of what’s occurring and how much sound is it?” Gross said. “That didn’t happen for whatever reason from the city last year.”
Residents with noise complaints call the Bend Police nonemergency number, and an officer takes decibel readings at the site. The city of Bend and Deschutes County 911 Dispatch had not completed records requests about the number of noise citations and complaints by press time, but a previous request showed the city received 1,162 noise complaints and issued six citations during a 13-month period in 2015 and 2016.
“Not only has the ordinance failed, but enforcement has utterly failed,” Bernardy said.
Changing the ordinance
The Bend Neighborhood Coalition and the River West Neighborhood Association, which lists noise as its top priority, advocate changing the city’s noise ordinance. Both groups say the goal is to reduce noise, not stop live music.
“We like music and support music in Bend,” River West board member Cassie Giddings said in an email. “We are looking to reduce noise decibel levels similar to what Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, have now, so neighbors are not getting blasted away by the bass in amplified music venues.”
Proposed changes include reducing the limit by up to 10 decibels — effectively half as loud as the current limit and in line with Portland’s 55-decibel residential limit in the daytime — and requiring annual permits for outdoor music venues.
Bernardy said he would like to see another dedicated outdoor venue in Bend, maybe run by the Bend Park & Recreation District, to anchor an entertainment district like those found in Austin. The former KorPine particleboard plant that collapsed earlier this year in the Old Mill District could be a site for the district, he said.
“Our position from the beginning with the city has been that we are not anti-growth, anti-development, anti-university, anti-music, anti-concerts or anti-fun,” he said. “We just think that if you’re going to grow by a third in a decade, in addition to physical infrastructure like sewers and roads, you need a policy infrastructure that allows for both growth and livability.”
Councilor Bill Moseley, who serves as council liaison to the River West Neighborhood Association, agrees. Despite opposition or indifference from the rest of the council, Moseley repeatedly has pushed to establish a standing livability committee to address concerns, including noise, zoning changes, parking, people living in cars on neighborhood streets and naked bicycle rides.
Moseley said he’s seen city staff brush off complaints as coming from just a few people with a “not in my backyard” attitude, and having a plan to refer to would help.
“It’s easy to disregard a few random people, and it’s a lot harder to disregard a whole plan,” he said.
The best solutions to noise problems will come from mediation, not completely changing city code, said Mayor Pro Tem Sally Russell, who previously lived in the River West neighborhood and has worked on the issue for several years.
“You can’t legislate good neighbors, so you need to use other tools,” Russell said.
Century Center business owners, the River West Neighborhood Association and Community Solutions of Central Oregon, a mediation group hired by the city, have met four times since June, said Gary Winterstein, executive director of Community Solutions. So far, the group has brainstormed more than 75 ideas to mitigate noise from concerts in the Century Center, including:
• Moving GoodLife’s outdoor stage, which faces homes on Commerce Avenue, to the north side of the building.
• Soundproofing inside Volcanic Theatre Pub.
• Replacing the north wall of the parking lot with a soundproof wall for outdoor shows.
• Not scheduling concerts at Volcanic Theatre Pub the same night of an outdoor show at the Century Center.
Community Solutions of Central Oregon also started a crowdsourcing page with interview-style questions to get public opinions.
While mediation is ongoing, Bernardy said city councilors will face a political problem if they don’t address noise and other livability concerns before asking Bend residents to support another road bond measure. As for whether Bend Neighborhood Coalition, a registered lobbying group with a political action committee, would actively campaign against a bond measure if the noise ordinance goes unchanged?
“Draw your own conclusions,” Bernardy said.
Music scene organizing
More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition started by Bend Radio Group that states: “We, the undersigned, believe outdoor events and concerts in Bend, like concerts at the Century Center, add to the quality of life, community, and culture in our city of Bend, OR. WE do NOT want to see them go away.”
Gross said the petition aims to drum up support for concerts. He said a vocal minority is responsible for most of the complaints, and the majority of people want to see the concerts continue.
“They have been extremely vocal with the city, and we thought that there’s also another position out there, another voice out there,” Gross said. “There’s so many people in town that wait for summer, that love the Bend lifestyle, and part of that is concerts and events that are usually outdoors. … It’s part of what makes Bend special.”
As the Bend Radio Group petition gained traction on Facebook, four music lovers formed a group called Heartbeat of Bend: Save Live Music. The group includes Reisfar, the River West resident; Jasmine Barnett, a former show promoter and current community coordinator for the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Central Oregon; Courtney Latham, owner of sound engineering and DJ company Flip Flop Sounds; and musician Paterson Colson, known for performing with rock bands Strange Rover, Cosmonautical and more.
The group plans to create a political action committee in the near future to organize musicians, venues and music fans in Bend, Barnett said.
“I think ultimately we need to kind of modify (the sound ordinance) maybe — maybe look at the parts that aren’t working,” she said. “I know enacting this noise ordinance took a really long time, and I’m not sure that is something we need. For instance, when somebody is calling about a complaint, they can call as many times as they want to the police, and they’re making that choice to do that. To be honest, it turns into harassment. So where is the accountability on the citizen’s part?”
That’s something Derek Sitter, owner of Volcanic Theatre Pub, also wants to know. Sitter received a citation after numerous complaints during Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe eclipse show Volcanic held outside in the Century Center in mid-August. He’s also received complaints about music inside Volcanic, primarily from subwoofers and bass frequencies that aren’t readable by a decibel meter.
“No matter how long we meet in these (mediation) meetings, if we still have a couple of people literally — and this is a quote — literally sitting on Commerce in the gravel on somebody else’s property with their new, $5,000 dB meter in one hand and their cellphone in another hand and calling complaints during my Karl Denson show, then these mediation meetings are irrelevant,” Sitter said.
Marney Smith, director of Les Schwab Amphitheater, said she always deals with a handful of calls every year from people complaining about the noise at the venue’s shows. Most recently, complaints came in about the first day of Brewfest at the venue. Smith said the venue moved its speakers to solve the problem.
“If you study the history of outdoor live music venues, a town tends to grow around them and then the music venue tends to go away, and we hope that’s not the fate of our venue and the others in town,” Smith said. “I don’t think changing the ordinance is going to solve the specific problems people are talking about,” she added.
Century Center owner David Hill declined to comment.