Report On The Meeting Of The Zoning Board Of Appeals, May 11, 2023
By Hilda Greenbaum
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Steve Judge (Chair), Dillon Maxfield, Sarah Marshall, Vincent O’Connor, and David Sloviter
Staff: Christine Brestrup (Planning Director) and Rob Watchilla (Planner)
The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) granted a Special Permit with 29 enforceable conditions to operate a nightclub, Spoke Live, at 11 Pray Street, after getting satisfactory answers from the owner, Chad O’Rourke to board questions posed at the April 23 ZBA hearing. The facility with a proposed total occupancy of 587 patrons and staff, will be open about 90 days each year on Thursdays through Sundays from 8 p.m. to 1a.m. for drinking and dancing to recorded music. Some of the outstanding issues were the sound level in decibels inside the building, safe egress in an emergency, litter, interior ventilation, and outside queuing and crowd control. O’Rourke modified his management plan to address the queuing and litter issues.
Associate ZBA member Sarah Marshall asked whether the sidewalk in front of the building was public or private. Because it is a private sidewalk, the ZBA can regulate its use. O’Rourke plans to use portable stanchions overseen by doormen to control the queue of patrons waiting to enter the club. The doormen will count those entering and leaving each of the doors. By communicating via electronic devices, they have fairly accurate control over the number of people in the building. The same doormen will ensure that no one is leaving the site with beverage containers and will clean up any litter left by departing clients at the end of the evening.
While the zoning bylaw only regulates the outside noise level at 70 decibels at the property boundary, Associate ZBA member Vincent O’Connor continued to be concerned about the possibility of hearing damage to patrons and staff inside the club. Research indicates that noise levels of more than 85 decibels for an extended period of time can damage auditory sensory cells. The scientific literature also confirms that the sound level in facilities of this type can be 90-100 decibels. O’Connor asked that the sound level of recorded music be set at less than 85 decibels to protect staff, similar to the regulations passed that controlled indoor smoking. O’Rourke contended that young patrons aren’t concerned with loud noise levels and added that his bartenders and doormen have to communicate with the patrons so they can’t wear earplugs to protect their hearing. Workers are also protected by OSHA regulations.
O’Rourke did not agree with being required to measure and control the noise level inside the building, because there were no such rules for similar downtown establishments like The Drake. O’Connor didn’t get much traction from the board either. Associate ZBA member David Sloviter, noted that the patrons enter by choice, while Marshall stated that hearing damage only happens with high noise levels over an extended period of time. One of the conditions of the permit will also require that the fire department test their radio equipment within the building once it is open for business.
The fire department will also require a hydrant on Pray Street to serve both Spoke venues. O’Rourke agreed to pay for the new hydrant. A larger issue is the curbing in front of the exit door which could cause trampling problems if crowds of people were leaving in an emergency situation. A rather long discussion of possible solutions ensued, with O’Rourke agreeing to comply with whatever the board decides. The curbing is in place to prevent cars from crashing through the front plate glass windows again.
O’Connor also asked for two men at each double door to make sure that the doorstops are secure during an emergency evacuation. This stipulation received little support from the board after O’Rourke assured them that one person can operate both doors rapidly. O’Connor next noted that the hallway from the dance floor to the bathrooms was too narrow. He was assured that the width was more than required by current codes. Then he was concerned that there were no chairs for people to sit on in a venue where alcohol is being served and proposed that benches be placed along the walls. He was informed that the doormen have chairs, should someone have the need to sit down. He was also assured that there will be no use of glassware–only plastic and metal beverage cans will be available, and none of these can be taken out of the building..
Having been accused by board members of trying to micro-manage this business, O’Connor went on to suggest requiring solar panels on the roof, since the bar owner has a 20-year lease for the property. This added expensive requirement was also squelched by board members as was his proposal to reduce the number of occupants on the premises.
The consensus of the board was that O’Rourke has a long history of bar management, that he has an impressive level of “policing” at the existing Spoke, and has had no problems with crowd management or behavioral issues requiring police intervention. The board voted 4 to 1 to grant the Special Permit with O’Connor being the one no vote. (While the former 3-member ZBA required unanimous decisions to grant a permit, the town’s Home Rule Charter requires four YES votes from the five-member board.)