First, let me say for the record: I LOVE many of the ideas in Mayor Mike McGinn's new nightlife initiative, which include sensible changes like staggered closing hours (benefits: everybody isn't stumbling drunk into the street at the same time, and there are more eyes on the street during late-night hours, like 2 to 5 am, when streets are currently empty and thus more dangerous), saner noise enforcement, allowing police to ticket rowdy drunks, and adding more late-night public transit options.

Do all that and lower the drinking age, and I think you're on your way to a sensible, harm-reduction-based approach to nightlife that focuses on problem patrons and clubs, rather than punishing everybody (and every business) for a few bad actors.

OK, now for the reality check. The biggest, most positive changes McGinn is proposing are things the city can't actually do.

The state liquor control board, as I reported nearly four years ago, will have to approve any changes in state liquor rules to allow bars to stay open after 2 am. So far, they've been more or less silent on the issue, saying only that they're "open" to the idea. If Washington State adopted staggered closing hours, it would be one of only a handful of US jurisdictions to do so, joining Nevada, Louisiana, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Tennessee, Hawaii, New York, and Alaska, along with several cities and counties. It's an utterly sensible idea, but it simply isn't something McGinn can do on his own. It's like adopting a resolution stating that the state should put more money into transit and less into highways—sure, it makes sense, but it's meaningless without action, and interest, at the state level.

Similarly, expanding late-night public-transit options is a decision that would have to be made by King County—and it happens to be one the county is extremely unlikely to make. The reasons are twofold. First, King County Metro is facing a budget shortfall of more than $200 million through 2012, and the potential for cuts of up to 585,000 service hours by 2013. With commuters and daily Metro riders facing cuts of that magnitude, it's hard to see county politicians arguing that Metro should expand service to hours the agency doesn't currently cover. Second, any Metro service expansion is subject to a policy called subarea equity; simply put, if you expand transit service in Seattle, you have to expand it equally on the Eastside and in South King County. At the moment, in other words, it's a nonstarter.

I'd be less discouraged about McGinn's proposal if it wasn't just another unfunded idea, pushed at an endless series of "town hall" pep rallies, that never seem to go much beyond high-level discussions. Just off the top of my head: The Walk, Bike, Ride initiative, an unfunded proposal to promote alternatives to driving; the Youth and Families Initiative, an unfunded (and ambiguous) initiative aimed at improving city schools and keeping kids out of gangs; and the Seattle Broadband Initiative, on which McGinn has been silent since he rolled it out back in March. (McGinn has also tried to convince the council to put light rail expansion to West Seattle and Ballard, and a bond measure to rebuild the seawall, on the ballot, but both proposals lacked necessary support from the city council).

As for the things the city can actually do on its own: Yay for police power to ticket obnoxious drunks instead of just pouring them into cabs, yay for more security training at clubs, and yay for more enforcement of city codes.

And both yay and boo for new noise-ordinance standards—which, while desperately needed (cops shouldn't have the right to target clubs arbitrarily or on the basis of which neighbors whine the loudest), could be problematic as written. As drafted, the new noise standards would require cops to show up to the scene of a complaint (e.g., an apartment near a noisy club), close the doors and windows, and measure noise volumes before confirming a complaint is valid.

The problem with this approach is that it requires residents to wait around until the cops show up at their houses, potentially hours after the noise has stopped (currently, cops measure noise from outside a venue to see if it violates the city's maximum noise standards.) The person complaining has to not only stay up until police arrive, but let the cops into his or her home to measure the noise level inside, potentially hours after the noise has ceased. That could pose a significant barrier to complaining about the rare bars and clubs that genuinely cause problems. A better solution would be to impose noise-proofing standards on new developments, and pick a reasonable maximum outside noise level that balances the needs of residents and clubs.
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