If a Band Plays a New Urbanist Venue, Does it Make a Noise?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Over the past few weeks, the Charlottesville City Council has heard an “earful” from musicians, restaurateurs, and neighbors about noise in the Belmont neighborhood

The Belmont community consists of primarily  two “1890’s era subdivisions, “Belmont” and “Carlton”. The neighborhood has experienced significant increases  in affluence in recent years.  In agreement with their comprehensive vision of building a walkable, sustainable community, City Council designated Belmont to be a priority neighborhood for improvements from 1996-1999, which according to the City website:

resulted in enhancements such as new paved crosswalks, street trees and planters in “Downtown Belmont.” The Neighborhood has a mixture of housing with corner convenience stores scattered throughout

City Council also permitted the conversion of several buildings into restaurants to generate more mixed use in this neighborhood.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the concern about noise calls into question the concept of mixing residential and commercial uses that is critical to the theology of New Urbanism. 

For those unfamiliar the philosophical underpinnings, here are three of the top ten principles from NewUrbanism.org:

1. Walkability
-Most things within a 10-minute walk of home and work
-Pedestrian friendly street design (buildings close to street; porches, windows & doors; tree-lined streets; on street parking; hidden parking lots; garages in rear lane; narrow, slow speed streets)
-Pedestrian streets free of cars in special cases

3. Mixed-Use & Diversity
-A mix of shops, offices, apartments, and homes on site. Mixed-use within neighborhoods, within blocks, and within buildings
-Diversity of people – of ages, income levels, cultures, and races

7. Increased Density
-More buildings, residences, shops, and services closer together for ease of walking, to enable a more efficient use of services and resources, and to create a more convenient, enjoyable place to live.

In seven years of listening to project reviews and examining architectural renderings, the Free Enterprise Forum has never seen a rendering featuring the nightlife of a mixed use community.  Usually the renderings feature sidewalk cafes, perhaps with a nice dog in the picture and folks having coffee just steps away from their loft.

urban frontage

The image to the left is part of Places 29 a planners’ vision for future development along Airport Road in Albemarle County.

Note the wide sidewalk cafe seating, apartments over retail, and yes, a nice dog behaving well tied to a street tree.

What if one of the new retail spaces chooses to offer live music to go along with their lattes?  Will the existing noise ordinances cover residences that are in the same building as the restaurant that is providing a live music venue?

Back to the Belmont neighborhood, property prices have increased in recent years, some may claim the increase in value is due to the revitalization of opening up commercial uses in the neighborhood.  Others believe their home values are being diminished because of the late night activity and noise. 

Are the residential property owners who spent thousands of dollars to remodel their home expecting to live in a quiet neighborhood setting, right in their opposition to restaurants in their district staying open late into the evening/early morning?

What of the commercial property owners who spent thousands of dollars to remodel their buildings to open an enterprise (generate tax revenue, provide jobs, within walking distance) as supported by the City’s Vision?

Or, is it possible, such divergent uses should be separated to prevent such conflict?

The question remains, should residential be mixed with livelive music music and Mojitos?small house 



20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org


6 responses

  1. Neil, while I feel badly for a bad result, I do not know the particulars. And I am not a member of the New Urbanism, but a fan and I appreciate what they are trying to do. I believe the goal here is a healthy neighborhood. In our neck of the woods we have a commercial strip that is struggling to sustain itself, with some hurdles in their way. People who moved into that strip to live knew it was long-time commercial strip. If the commercial strip returns to a strong vitality the residents will benefit from the influx of spenders. Yes, we discuss noise when a bar wants to have music, but that is the negotiation of the neighbors; and not all neighbors or alderpersons agree on everything.

    Without some thoughtful effort, allowing the “free” market to control all the results, we will eventually see a deterioration that the neighbors unanimously do not want (this is expressed in every development forum held about our neighborhood): big box, big parking lot, faster roads coming in and out, service (grocery, clothing and convenience store) to the neighbors will suffer because the cars can go anywhere to buy food and clothing; and they probably will.

  2. I think new urbanist design ideas are great. Unlike most professional planners I realize that they are not the only ideas. We only hear the complaints. People don’t normally attend meetings or contact their council to list all the things they like and enjoy. I wonder how many chose to live there because of the mixed uses? I wonder how many moved next to a restaurant without thinking it through and now regret it? Many people don’t want to live in an isolated home alone on 10 acres, but that does not mean rural housing should be excluded. You can’t please all the people all the time, but you can please some of the people none of the time.

  3. How many people wanting new urbanist development actually live in the city?

    Another question about it, the list of things New Urbanism is defined by included diversity. What does that have to do with it – or should we have quotas for who lives where?

  4. For New Urbanist thinking, you might check out: http://www.cnu.org/ I cannot answer questions about their thinking, but I do know New Urbanists and the ones I know live in a city. They might use the word “diversity” as meaning something other than race; maybe class; maybe a well mixed commercial district. Ask them.

    I am supportive of any effort to make neighborhoods that allow us to get services without the use of a car. I have a host of reasons for saying this, but my intention is not to take your car away but to foster public transportation because, done right, public transportation is more efficient than the use of a car. And that should be an option offered to everyone, especially in a city. Public transportation is more easily implemented in some parts of a city (my neighborhood) than in others (suburbias). And people walking in their neighborhoods – short walks to stores and services – is healthy and people walking make our streets and sidewalks more safe.

  5. I think it is important to identify what New Urbanism does well, and what it cannot do.

    j greene makes a good point that what people what in a neighborhood can be very different. No amount of new urbanist development by itself can persuade someone that wants to live on ten acres in the country to live in a dense mixed-use neighborhood. That pretty much sums up why I question the wisdom of growth areas as a means of rural preservation. If you really want a mango then there’s no amount of bananas I can sell that will cause you to change you mind.

    That said, when New Urbanism is done well, it takes some of the amenities of the rural area (like greenspace) and makes them available in the urban area. So, maybe some people that would have bought ten acres of forest they could walk around on might now have ten acres they share with other families. The idea is to create the best of both worlds so you can go running on a trail from your house, come back, take a shower then walk to a restaurant and hear a local band.

  6. This is a fair point, but I see the noise issue as more of a surmountable hurdle than a fatal flaw to new urbanism as a living choice. Perhaps the problem is that new urbanism has been sold as a paradise (like everything else is sold – that’s what marketing is), when there are always going to be certain trade-offs in the real world. Compromise is part of life.

    I suspect that most of the people who are bothered by the noise are not the same ones who have moved in recently to enjoy the mixed-use amenities. This change is all very new on the scale of housing, and all transitioning neighborhoods have a bumpy ride regardless of the direction of the change. Property values would not have shot up like they have in Belmont unless a significant number of people want to live there – thumping bass and all.

    The bigger problem is that there are far too few places like Belmont to meet market demand for this lifestyle.

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