New bylaw amendments would allow downtown Halifax bars to be louder for longer outdoors — but only until 11pm.
The proposed amendments came to a special virtual meeting of Halifax regional council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee on Thursday.
In the staff report to the committee, planner Ross Grant proposed the creation of an entertainment district in downtown Halifax. The district would cover the full length of Argyle Street, but none of the other surrounding bar streets.
“This will allow the Municipality to test the concept, to support the local entertainment economy, and improve the quality of life of residents by improving access to social spaces,” Grant wrote.
“In addition, the restaurant and entertainment sector has been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the establishment of an entertainment district could help support businesses through the recovery ahead.”
Currently, the city’s Bylaw N-200 permits “noise generating activities” like amplified music from 7am to 9:30pm Monday to Friday, 8am to 7pm on Saturday, and 9am to 7pm on Sunday.
The proposed bylaw amendments would exclude Argyle Street from those rules, allowing noise seven days a week from 9am to 11pm. The precise wording:
The emission of sound in relation to parades, street dances, al fresco dining, a public address system, live music, festive or religious activities, cultural or artistic activities, general conversation, or other community activities are exempt from the provisions of this By-law beginning at 9 o’clock in the morning (9:00 a.m.) until eleven o’clock in the afternoon (11:00 p.m.) in the areas labeled as “Entertainment District” as shown on Schedule “D”: Entertainment District.
During Thursday’s meeting, Coun. Sam Austin asked about the reasoning for 11pm, given bars are open until 2am or even 3:30am, depending on their liquor licence.
“My initial inclination is that maybe that should be a little bit later to reflect the actual operating hours down there,” Austin said.
Grant said 11pm is recommended because it aligns with other cities’ approach, but there is an option in the staff report to move later to match liquor licences.
Most Canadian cities Grant reviewed cut noise off in their entertainment districts at 10pm, but Vancouver and St. John’s go to 11pm, according to the report. Looking further afield, Austin, TX stays loud until 2am and Sydney, Australia until midnight.
Coun. Lindell Smith asked whether staff talked to the business commission about it.
“We did reach out to the [business improvement districts], downtown businesses, the Restaurant Association, some other stakeholders, and I believe that consultation was done early in 2020,” Grant said.
Smith proposed deferring the item pending further conversation with the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. After further discussion, the committee decided to move ahead while also trying to have that conversation.
Coun. Waye Mason, who’s not on the committee but joined the meeting because Argyle Street is in his district, said he thinks he knows how the conversation will go.
“Certainly the impression I’ve gotten, knowing this is coming from staff, is that downtown businesses … I don’t expect them to be happy with the  o’clock stop, that they were angling for a two o’clock stop,” Mason said.
The committee recommended in favour of the bylaw amendments as written. They’re expected to come to regional council for first reading in June, and then second reading at a later meeting.
In an interview Thursday evening*, Paul MacKinnon, CEO of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, said he thinks 11pm or midnight would be an appropriate time.
“Things like outdoor music and bands and that kind of thing, in most cases you probably don’t need to push that to two o’clock,” he said.
MacKinnon said he was surprised to see Grafton Street and Grand Parade weren’t included in the exemption, given those streets are really part of the actual entertainment district too, and that’s part of the feedback he’ll provide to the city.
The new rules will be important to send a signal to developers that they might want to add some soundproofing to their buildings, MacKinnon said, and to people moving downtown that they should expect noise.
“We want residents and businesses to be attracted to the entertainment district for the things that it brings and part of that is, there’s noise a little bit later into the night,” he said.
Generally, MacKinnon is happy to see the bylaw becoming more realistic after waiting a few years, but noted it’s only controlling noise from the businesses.
“It’s really meant to kind of control noise from the establishments themselves, not really from individuals,” he said.
“Obviously if you’ve been there pre-pandemic at least and hopefully post-pandemic, if you’re down there at 2am, it’s pretty noisy on the street regardless, and I don’t expect that to change.”
*This article was updated to add comments from MacKinnon
Looking ahead to hopefully 2 to 3 weeks from now, patios will be the main thing and downtown noise will represent open for business bars and restaurants or both. For summer 2021 at least, seems appropriate to me that 11:00 sound restrictions should be stretched out to at least midnight. If opening up means more outdoor service then why not give it a try? Pretend we’re on George Street, St. John’s for one summer ????????????????
Is there a specified limit in decibels? Adjacent: Fredericton’s new bylaw preventing vehicles louder than 92db.