The City Council voted 7-1 on Monday night, with Vice Mayor Greg Scharff absent and Councilwoman Karen Holman dissenting, to set time restrictions on amplified sound at the plaza, which occupies the prominent corner of University Avenue and Emerson Street. Under the rule change, amplified sound will only be allowed from 6 to 10 p.m. on Mondays through Thursday, from 5 to 11 p.m. on Friday, between noon and 11 p.m. on Saturday and between noon and 10 p.m. on Sunday.
The council's decision was a slight adjustment to the proposal offered by staff and the Parks and Recreation Commission. That proposal would have allowed musicians to start using amplified sound at 5 p.m. between Monday and Thursday. Councilmen Sid Espinosa and Larry Klein both argued that the workday these days ends later than 5 p.m. and proposed moving the starting time to 6 p.m.
Amplified sound became an issue shortly after the 2009 renovation of Lytton Plaza, which included new paving, a new fountain, new tables and chairs and electric outlets. The idea was to use the outlets for city-sponsored events, like the short-lived Farmers Market that occurred once a week at the plaza between 2009 and 2010. But visitors had their own ideas. Some plugged in and played their music instruments. Others used the outlets for stereos, personal heaters and other items, said Daren Anderson, division manager for Open Space and Parks at the city's Community Services Department.
Anderson said the city has been fielding complaints from downtown businesses, who claimed the music during daytime is too loud, and downtown residents, who said musicians often play until late at night. John McNellis, a developer whose buildings include 180 University Ave., located across the street from the plaza, was among those calling for the city to clamp down on sound. His building includes the venture-capital firm Technology Crossover Ventures on the second floor and downtown newcomer West Elm, on the ground floor.
"The noise is highly disruptive to the conduct of everyday business, and the last thing we, as a city, should ever do is give a great tenant pause about either locating to or remaining in our downtown," McNellis wrote. "That is the situation now."
Palo Alto has been struggling with the issue for more than a year. Staff has held stakeholder meetings in hopes of reaching a compromise with downtown workers and musicians on possible sound limits. The Parks and Recreation Commission considered various proposals, including one that would have required permits for all amplified sound, but decided in August to support a less stringent rule change. Plugging in will remain free on a first-come, first-serve basis, but users will now have to purchase permits if they wish to reserve an outlet for a specific time slot.
The other change that the council made to the staff proposal is the permit fee. While staff and the commission proposed a $90 fee, the council directed staff to set a fee at such a level as to reach "full cost recovery" for the city, with the amount not exceeding $200.
The initial proposal to ban amplified sound at the popular plaza drew criticism from musicians, who use the plaza both on an ad hoc basis and for organized jam sessions on Friday evenings. But after months of meetings, the merchants, the musicians and the city reached the compromise that was reflected in the most recent proposal. Susan Webb, who organizes the Friday jam sessions, asked the council not to shift the starting hour for amplified sound from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. but otherwise supported the new restrictions. These include having the city remotely shut off the power at the plaza outlet at 11 p.m.
"We need music. We need culture in town," Webb told the council, though she added that she supports turning down the music when it gets late enough.
"It helps me to get the power shut off at 11 p.m.," Webb said. "That means I don't have to rail at those pesky musicians who want to play until 3 a.m."
Russ Cohen, executive director of the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, also praised the restrictions. Like Webb, he stressed the importance of having music at the plaza. But acoustic music could do the trick, he said.
"That's what we're talking about — the difference between amplified music and acoustic music during daylight hours," Cohen said. "What you have before you is a very reasonable program. It does not prevent musicians from coming to Lytton Plaza and playing, as long as it's not amplified."
The council generally agreed with Cohen.
"I think this is an appropriate compromise," Klein said. "I like the spirit in which this was conducted. I do think this will require a certain amount of self-policing by the music groups, and I don't think that's a problem."
Klein compared the first-come, first-serve process at the plaza to basketball courts: demand frequently exceeds supply, but teams have a way of sorting out who will play when. Espinosa supported Klein's proposal for full-cost recovery and agreed with the downtown businesses that amplified music should be turned down. He recalled visiting some downtown offices and said the music from the plaza made it feel like he was at a rock concert.
Karen Holman was the sole councilmember who felt the resolution didn't go far enough. She called for an outright ban on amplified sound at Lytton Plaza, though her proposal didn't win the support of any of her colleagues.
"I hear our community getting louder and louder," Holman said, adding that this becomes particularly apparent when she goes to another town.
"Sometimes, the difference is stunning to me," Holman said. "I'm a supporter of music and the arts and the free speech and all that. But I don't know if from my perspective all of that is dependent on amplification."