Will Steep Fines Kill the Plateau's Nightlife?

Maisonneuve, September 27, 2010

[Read at Maisonneuve]

The official seal of Portland, Maine depicts a phoenix emerging from its own ashes, and the city’s motto is Resurgam—“I will rise again.” A combination of the optimistic and the ominous, it’s a reference to several massive fires that have wreaked havoc on the city, but today it could easily refer to Portland’s born-again music scene. For years, stringent noise ordinances and decibel limits in Portland effectively made it illegal to play live music in bars—or to talk outside of them. By many accounts, the regulations crushed local music: venues were unable to stay afloat when faced with fine after fine, and bands lost their performance spaces. Then, last week, the city council voted to relax Portland’s noise ordinance, nearly doubling the acceptable decibel level in the city.

Montreal’s Plateau borough, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction. Following a five-month period during which the borough received some three thousand noise complaints, on August 24 the Plateau drastically increased penalties for excessive noise, allowing police to issue fines of as much as $12,000—up from $1,000 previously. The increased fines are accompanied by the creation of Project NOISE, a special police taskforce aimed at reducing noise pollution on the Plateau.

Borough mayor Luc Ferrandez says that the changes came in response to ongoing problems with ten or fifteen “very organized bar owners who can count their money and know that it pays not to respect the law.” But critics are worried that small bars and venues —even if they’re not being specifically targeted—will fall prey to increased policing and higher fines, leaving a gap in the Plateau’s unique cultural scene.

As news of the increased fines spread, local bar owners and musicians took notice, flooding a recent Plateau council session and lining up to ask questions and express their concern. Fanning the flames of these fears is the fact that there was had been little warning that things were about to change on the Plateau. Bar owners and musicians weren’t adequately consulted about the noise problem or the new fines, , and there was a lack of communication about the new fines when they were approved. The communication that did happen was not “through good channels of information,” according to Sébastien Croteau, the director of l’Association des petits lieux d’art et des spectacles (APLAS), an organization that represents Montreal’s small cultural spaces.

And the way the bylaw is being enforced also has Plateau artists worried: though the borough has set decibel levels at which noise is considered excessive, the police will not use noise meters or other objective tools to establish whether a venue is too loud. Instead, the new rules will be enforced “with common sense,” according to a spokesperson for Stéphane Bélanger, the director of Project NOISE. But leaving enforcement up to the judgment of each individual police officer opens up questions of human error and the law’s fairness. “It would be like an officer pulling someone over for speeding and saying, ‘You seem to be going fast, here’s a ticket,’” argues Croteau.

Ferrendez insists that “little, local-scene bars”—spots like Divan Orange and Club Lambi—are not in danger as a result of increased fines, and that upping the monetary punishment for excessive noise was necessary to get the attention of a few problematic spaces. “These people have received dozens of fines and we've met them hundreds of times, and in the end, we need a tool with more teeth,” Ferrendez says of the string of popular bars on lower St. Laurent. “It was impossible to make them understand that they were disturbing the neighbours.”

But Hilary Leftick, executive producer of local festival Pop Montreal, still fears for small venues. “A police officer is walking by, maybe hears something even though no one's complaining and realizes that this is a new directive of the Plateau,” she hypothesizes. “And he says to himself, ‘I want to make sure that I'm a good police officer, enforcing the laws…’”

SMALL ART SPACES in Montreal haven’t had it easy over the last few years. Increasingly, they’ve faced pressure from the city on a number of fronts: there have been repeated crackdowns on venues without proper alcohol permits, the city has heavily fined small venues and promoters for putting up posters and cops have shuttered informal loft venues like Lab Synthèse and Friendship Cove.

The latest bout of increased attention on bars and live music venues has implications beyond hefty fines for noise. Each time a resident files a complaint against an establishment, it’s noted in a file, explains Croteau. As complaints accumulate, the borough is given more impetus to deny a venue its alcohol license renewal—the bread and butter of any venue.

“I know of some cases where the owner of the building has called the police to complain about the noise just to make sure that [a bar] would not be able to renew their lease, and they would go away,” Croteau continues. “Not being able to renew their alcohol permit—it could actually kill more [venues] than the fines for noise.” This, he argues, illustrates why objectively verifying whether complaints are justified is so important.

Ferrendez is aware of this issue, as well as the threat to small venues from rising rents and gentrification. “We don't want to end up with just a bunch of big bars and lose the little spaces,” he says. Indeed, Projet Montréal, Ferrendez’s party, has a platform that includes fostering culture in Montreal’s neighbourhoods, and he insists he’s committed to working with small venues to help them avoid receiving fines for noise. “We want the streets to stay the way they are on the Plateau, which means a mix of different culture, stores and people,” he says.

That, at least, is something everybody agrees on. “I think a lot of the people living on the Plateau like the active cultural scene, and being part of it,” says Montreal DJ Ghislain Poirer. Leftick agrees. “Nobody wants to have old ladies crying and sad that they can't sleep. That's not our objective,” she explains. “Everybody wants the same thing: they want an interesting place to live and work and call their home, and it's not easy to have common ground sometimes when you have people on different sides of the table.”

Though Ferrendez has said that “the law and the fines are not negotiable,” the borough has scheduled a series of meetings over the next few months to “help the local scene to survive and develop and thrive on the Plateau.” People like Croteau and Leftick are hopeful that some good will come out of the increased dialogue—though they still plan on holding the borough to its promise to help out small spaces. “Every time a small venue goes away, or relocates, cultural life in the borough changes,” Croteau says. “Sure, people will go to the Quartier des Spectacles to see big shows there, but we still need to have cultural life in the small boroughs.

“And who provides this cultural life?” he asks. “Small venues. We need to make sure that they stay where they are.”