For 30 minutes Tuesday, the City Council chambers sounded more like a music hall than a legislative meeting place.
Large speakers were set up blasting pop and hip-hop music. Some officials bobbed along with the tunes; others held sound readers to experience what 95 decibels of amplified sound feels and sounds like before voting whether to nearly double the permitted sound levels for 10 blocks of downtown.
The music was cranked up louder as officials stepped into the foyer and shut the double doors. The sound readers ticked to 95. That's when the wall began to vibrate, rattling each council member's framed photo.
When it came time to vote on the ordinance five hours later, the council voted to shrink the boundaries of the music district -- where venues will be able to apply for a permit to play louder music -- and lowered the allowable bass level to 90 decibels. But the council deferred a first vote on the ordinance for another week because of the numerous changes.
The proposed ordinance was offered as a solution to consistent complaints from Southside residents over the noise coming from the popular music venue Track 29. But the ordinance has sparked a debate downtown over whether the creating a sound district that excludes some local music venues, bars and event halls is fair, and whether raising the levels of permitted noise so close to neighborhoods protects the interests of a growing number of residents living downtown.
The proposed defined music district would run from Seventh Street and Market and Broad streets to Main Street and stop before the neighborhood across the railroad tracks. Within this area, music venues and local businesses would be able to apply for a permit to play music at 80 decibels, or 90 decibels of bass, on weekends until midnight and weekdays until 11 p.m.
City officials say the new legislation with the latest amendments strikes a balance between supporting a growing music scene and protecting neighborhoods. But multiple Southside residents still say the ordinance caters to Track 29 and doesn't protect the surrounding neighborhoods.
The conflict between the city wanting people to live downtown and the desire to support a nightlife and music scene isn't unique to Chattanooga. Cities across the country confront similar issues.
Austin, Texas -- one of the cities Chattanooga officials studied before writing its legislation-- faces a similar clash between music venues in defined districts and the residents that have moved downtown.
David Murray, Austin's sound engineering consultant, said the city has two downtown entertainment districts that allow music venues and bars to amplify their sound at 85 decibels until 2 a.m. While the districts have been around for more than a decade, the conflict has increased as more people want to live downtown and as popular music venues play louder bass because sound equipment has improved.
To address multiple complaints, Austin's music division plans to propose adding a specific regulation governing bass levels -- something Chattanooga's plan already includes.
The city will introduce restrictions for the first time on venues' bass levels and will require owners to do everything reasonable to sound-proof their venues before receiving a permit.
Councilman Moses Freeman said the city will examine the ordinance again in a year to make sure neighborhoods are being protected.
"Our whole focus now needs to be did we do enough to protect the neighborhoods and are we willing to go to the next level," Freeman said. "At the same time, I think we can still satisfy the need to attract more musical venues to that particular corridor."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.