Data Shows Bars With Most Noise Complaints, But Is It Just Sound and Fury?

Recently released 311 complaint data reveals a veritable who’s-who in the neighborhood’s ongoing struggle with nightlife.

An analysis of commercial noise complaints submitted to 311 between January 2010 and October 16, 2011 finds that some familiar faces like La Vie, Sin Sin Lounge and Nublu are near the top of the list. The data, which represents the most recent 311 complaints available on NYC Open Data, shows that the undisputed champion of noise complaints in the East Village is Sutra Lounge. The hip-hop lounge had a whopping 265 complaints during the 22-month stretch — 116 more than the runner-up.

“We have the number one most vigilant neighbor, that’s what it really means,” said Ariel Palitz, the owner of Sutra and a member of Community Board 3.

As it happens, Ms. Palitz’s suspicion that the vast majority of the complaints come from one person is shared by many of the bar owners on the list.

“I have one neighbor who I’m sure leads the city in complaints by herself,” said Roger Herr, owner of the 11th Street Bar.

Mr. Herr was surprised when contacted by The Local — not because his bar’s 149 complaints were enough to earn second place — but because his bar didn’t rank first.

Mr. Herr’s and Ms. Palitiz’s conflicts with their neighbors follow a familiar pattern that plays out in numerous East Village venues every week, from the controversy over the Cloister Cafe to tense fights regarding Diablo Royale Este. Neighbors say they’re tired of screaming revelers, pulsing bass and pounding drums that plague their sleepless nights. However, nearly all of the owners and managers who responded to requests for comment said they’re being targeted by a few individuals who bombard the 311 call center, skewing the data and making it difficult to tell who the truly problematic business owners are.

Sherry Bender, one of Mr. Herr’s neighbors, believes the flood of complaints against the 11th Street Bar is more than justified. Her small studio apartment shares a wall with the bar, and she complained of amplified music with drums that shake her wooden loft bed deep into the night. She has appealed to city and state agencies about the bar for years and continues to do so.

“I can’t relax, I can’t enjoy my own property in my own home,” said Ms. Bender, who has lived in her apartment since 1988. “I’m prevented from sleeping — sometimes 11 days in a row.” She said the music, which the bar advertises openly on its Facebook page, frequently violates city noise codes and keeps her awake, disrupting her daytime work schedule as a physical therapist.

To test her claims, The Local visited Ms. Bender’s apartment on two weekday evenings in December with a digital noise meter in tow. On the first night, a solo performance kept the noise levels coming from the bar quieter than usual, according to Ms. Bender. On the second, louder music from the bar registered in the low-40s decibel range. The Department of Environmental Protection’s noise code states that music from a nearby bar should not exceed 42 decibels when measured from nearby residences, and also should not exceed the ambient sound level on the street by seven decibels.

Mr. Herr said he regularly tasks a licensed doorman on busy nights with keeping voices down. “I purchased stanchions to place in front of a neighbor’s windows in an attempt to keep all passers-by from smoking or speaking loudly in the area,” he added.

Still, the noise complaints at 11th Street Bar and Sutra are nothing new. In fact, the top spot on the list is a familiar honor for Sutra. In 2005, Ms. Palitz’s club was at the top of a list of Manhattan’s noisiest bars compiled by former city councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. When Ms. Moskowitz released the list, it opened what Ms. Palitz called “a can of misery,” leading to nightly visits from the police and two years of court appearances. She credited the long ordeal with inspiring her to advocate for business owners through the New York Nightlife Association and Community Board 3’s S.L.A. Licensing Committee.

“Being number one on that list in 2005 changed the trajectory of my life in a lot of ways,” she said, adding, “It was as preposterous then as it is now.” She argued that 311 data, without corroborating evidence, should not be considered a valid yardstick for measuring the neighborhood’s good and bad operators.

Mr. Herr’s bar also has a history of conflicts. It came in fourth on the 2005 list of bars around the city.

Other owners on the list said that they take extra efforts to reduce noise, from installing better soundproofing material to hiring additional door staff that handle patrons carousing on the sidewalks.

In at least one case, a venue’s effort to make good with its neighbors appears to have paid off. Jacques Coupet of Recoup Lounge said he had been pestered by a “chronic complainer,” even on days when his lounge was closed. But he said he shuttered the club for four months this summer and installed soundproofing in September; his last noise complaint was submitted in April.

Similarly, Nublu reopened late last month after being shuttered due to complaints from at least one neighbor. Its owner told The Local the venue would now have a “less clubby style” and more “acoustic-friendly nights.”

Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer acknowledged in an email that as the owners suggested, 311 noise complaints can sometimes give an incomplete picture of a bar’s operating practices.

“Some of these complaints may be from one person calling constantly,” Ms. Stetzer wrote. “Is that fair to brand a business as bad? Something to think about.”

Still, Ms. Stetzer argued, the neighbors of potentially problematic establishments are right often enough to warrant attention. Sin Sin, which ranked fourteenth on The Local’s list, closed in the wake of heavy criticism from neighbors and a deadly August 2010 shooting. Ms. Stetzer wondered why La Vie Lounge — ranking twelfth, with 27 complaints — is even open at all, given the expiration of its liquor license in February and its rocky relationship with neighbors, elected officials, and the community board.

“Right now, the neighbors are happy,” said Wally Abdullah, a manager at La Vie, gesturing toward the empty club. “But on a Friday or Saturday night, it’s almost out of my control.”

As for Sutra on First Avenue, around the corner from La Vie, Ms. Palitz said she is not frustrated by her second appearance at the top of a list that ranks noisy bars. Instead, she wears the crown with pride.

“Being number one of anything in New York is an honor,” she said.

Compiled by Nick DeSantis A map of 311 commercial noise complaints from Jan. 2010 to Oct. 15, 2011.