NOISY NIGHTS

ILLUSTRATION BY  Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

Noise complaints are up 300 per cent in parts of the West End. Here’s why my right to dance stops when the bass reaches your bedroom

The Toronto Noise Coalition: Aren’t they headlining a gig at the newly relocated Music Gallery, making dental-torture soundscapes on a bill with the Nihilist Spasm Band and Nadja? No. TNC is a collection of residents and business owners, working with the city to redevelop current noise bylaws.

Noise complaints go up year after year – in number, not necessarily in decibels – and no one on any side of the debate seems happy with official responses. As one person told a community meeting on Wednesday night at Scadding Court Community Centre, “The status quo treats everyone in the worst way possible.” One guy in the music industry was worried about “serial complainers” who threaten his business, when no one else in the ’hood seems to mind; he was quickly countered by another man who proudly admitted to being a serial complainer, saying that he had to badger the city for four years straight before his concern was addressed. The third-party facilitators, hired by the city, did a heroic job of keeping the conversation nimble, civil and tightly controlled.

That meeting was one of five held this month to hear public input on some proposed solutions, which include placing actual decibel limits on amplified sound at different times of day. (Right now, someone just has to say, “It’s too loud!” and a bylaw officer has to agree.) More than a hundred people jammed into a small Scadding Court room to talk specifically about amplified sound, i.e., music in bars and at outdoor concerts. Other meetings focused on construction (the main offender), vehicles (car alarms) and general noise (baritone saxophonists).

The current noise bylaw is somewhat vague: Outside of specific rules for construction noise and power equipment (e.g. lawnmowers), as well as designated “quiet zones” (e.g. hospitals), the blanket rule in any public place is to keep things chill between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays (9 a.m. on weekends and stat holidays). With more and more nightlife encroaching on residential areas in the downtown core – and more condos encroaching on nightlife – the call for more specifics has been on the city’s radar since 2015, when this process began. For whatever reason, a report will only now be filed for council this coming April – four long years later. Despite all the hoo-ha about our new supposed status as a “music city,” revising Toronto’s noise bylaw has been pretty low on the priority list.

It’s also low on the priority list of developers, claimed some at the Scadding meeting. One person said that when he used to work in real estate, sound was not treated as seriously as obvious necessities like meeting the fire code; it was almost an afterthought. Unless, of course, you live mere metres away from the Gardiner, as a surprising number of people do; in the Ontario Building Code, those buildings are obligated to provide greater acoustic reinforcement, in both walls and windows. Building on the subway line also poses specific soundproofing problems; one development used a solution found in opera houses.

Maybe this should apply to entertainment districts as well as highways and subways. One of the suggestions that came out of the Scadding group discussions was to place the onus on the newbie to the neighbourhood: If a condo is constructed on a commercial strip, it should have above-adequate soundproofing; if a new bar opens up in a predominantly residential area, it should be held to higher standards than, say, the 72-year-old Horseshoe Tavern. As of 2017, condo builders were required to test their materials on-site, rather than in a lab, giving a better real-world measure of how soundproof they actually are. All that will help mitigate future complaints, but meanwhile there are plenty of people in existing structures with a lot to complain about.

Between 2009 and 2015, noise complaints to the Municipal Licensing and Standards office at the City of Toronto pertaining to loud music increased 312 per cent. The Toronto Noise Coalition points out that complaints about loud music, however, rose a whopping 967 per cent in the former Ward 28: Toronto-Rosedale, roughly south of Bloor, east of York Street, west of the Don, and including the Toronto Islands. (Just a guess here: Many of those complaints may have been Islanders upset with the Rebel/Sound Academy nightclub on the waterfront.) In the West End, complaints were up between 200 to 300 per cent in the former wards 14, 18 and 19 (Parkdale–High Park, Davenport, and Trinity–Spadina, respectively). Oddly enough, the one area of the city with the most noise complaints is in southwest Scarborough, where the major irritants are construction and traffic – but also, apparently, toddler soccer games.

The most popular proposal at the meeting would have complaints about amplified sound measured at “point of reception,” i.e., where the noise is being bothersome, as opposed to “point of source,” i.e. where the noise is being made. (The current bylaw does not specify, as it pertains to amplified sound.) The small catch there is that most complaints are made long after the witching hour, and so if you do want a bylaw officer to measure noise levels in your private space, that means having them there for at least an hour in the middle of the night. In one city-commissioned poll, 27 per cent of respondents were not comfortable with this idea. (Police only deal with noise complaints about large events and parties; Toronto’s 285 bylaw officers deal with everything else.)

Fifty years after cracking down on the countercultural epicentre that was pre-gentrification Yorkville, Toronto has finally awakened to the fact that a vibrant nightlife means a vibrant city. Music is therapeutic, even more so when experienced in communion with others – but only of their own free will. Noise complaints are a public health issue, as anyone kept up all night by exterior sound can tell you, whatever the source of that sound may be.

The Scadding meeting was remarkable for its goodwill. I expected more NIMBYism. But as one person pointed out at the end of the meeting, “Public health is also everyone dancing together!”

There are two more public consultations on the noise bylaw: Tuesday, Feb. 5 at the Centre for Social Innovation Regent Park Lounge, 585 Dundas St. E., 6 to 8 p.m., which will feature a discussion of construction noise. On Wednesday, Feb. 6 at the Garage, 720 Bathurst St., 6 to 8 p.m., the discussion will be about general residential noise. Online comments and suggestions will be taken until Feb. 28 at mlsfeedback@toronto.ca.

Soundtrack to this column: “Bring the Noise” by Public Enemy; “Who’s Afraid (Of the Art of Noise)” by Art of Noise; “A Violent Noise” by the Xx; “Ocean of Noise” by Arcade Fire; “Noisy Night” by Portastatic

This ongoing online column will be about those who make it their job to make this city work. I’ll be following not only representatives at City Hall and Queen’s Park, but also the neighbours who run businesses, sit on committees, spearhead projects and light up our lives. Hit me up with tips at michael@westendphoenix.com.