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Bifford L. Scarborough plays classic blues to the shoppers on Third Street Promenade Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — It’s a long-time fixture on the Third Street Promenade, a crowd-drawing line-up of diverse entertainment acts, from crooners to break-dancers to acrobats, all accessible over three blocks.

But while street performers have long played a part in making the promenade a world-famous shopping destination, their presence has come with some complications for businesses who share the commercial strip.

The Land and Asset Committee of the Bayside District Corp., a public/private management company that oversees Downtown Santa Monica, recently discussed some concerns raised regarding the street performances, including noise level from musical acts and the issue of crowds forming around retail carts, forcing some to shut down temporarily. The former was brought up by two committee members who several months ago encountered a street performer who appeared to be playing too loudly, finding that they were within the decibel level permitted by City Hall, prompting thoughts of whether local regulations need to be changed.

The committee is expected to discuss the issue more at its meeting next month with a representative from the Santa Monica Police Department and possibly the City Attorney’s Office, said Kathleen Rawson, Bayside’s executive director.

During the meeting, Bayside officials stressed that while they consider the performers to be valuable to the promenade, there are concerns that the noise from some is too loud and disruptive to businesses and patrons trying to dine at restaurants.

The law states that noise on the promenade cannot exceed 97 decibels between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. Levels cannot exceed 107 decibels from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, between 7 p.m. and midnight on Friday, and all of Saturday and Sunday.

There are about 500 performers with permits, which cost $37 and expire at the end of the calendar year. Stephen Bradford, the venue manager for Bayside, said he expects close to 1,000 permitted performers before the year ends.

He said that the decibel level was set after a series of tests that calculated ambiance noise level on the promenade at any time, adding 10 decibels to that number.

Bradford said he doesn’t believe the solution would be to tighten regulations, but rather strengthen enforcement of those performers who do violate the noise ordinance.

He added that there will always be performers who will exceed the permitted noise level, regardless of whether the decibel level is lowered or raised.

“I don’t think the performers are going out there thinking I’m going to be loud,” he said. “Imagine if you’re out there trying to play an instrument and 40 feet away, someone is playing the bagpipes.

“The tendency is for you to just compete because you’re trying to be heard.”

According to Bradford, a whisper in the library would register at about 30 decibels, while a normal conversation would measure at about 60 to 70 decibels. City traffic would come in at 85 decibels while a subway train would clock at about 95. The noise level of a power mower, if measured from three feet away, would measure about 107 decibels while a loud rock concert would be 115 decibels.

He said pain in the ear is felt at about 125 decibels.

Bradford said that enforcement has improved since a year ago when Bayside and the SMPD decided to make a concerted effort to have better and more regular communication about the noise issue, keeping each other apprised of violations and doing courtesy readings and checks on performances. Several community service officers have also been trained in the use of the meters.

“When performers know that someone is coming around with a sound meter to check on their level, it makes a difference,” he said.

About a half dozen performers were cited last weekend, about three of which were found in violation of noise levels. One was cited for performing without a permit while another was ticketed for leaving items unattended.

Art Lopez, the lead community service officer for the SMPD, said that enforcement is both proactive and complaint-driven. The complaints typically come from businesses on the promenade or other performers.

“The performers … like to grab people’s attention so that is why they tend to raise their volume,” he said. “They are passionate about what they do.”

For the past six years, Mario Monico has been singing Spanish and English pop music up and down the promenade, playing whenever he has free time from his full-time job as a caretaker for senior citizens.

The Los Angeles resident said he has gotten a few complaints about noise when playing in the 1300 block of the promenade, believing they’re coming from an office located in the second floor of one of the buildings.

While he doesn’t believe his music is too loud, Monico said that he was cited once when playing in front of McDonald’s.

“Most of us with permits at some point do violate the level, especially because of competition,” he said.

He said there are times when the performances can sound chaotic, especially when the acts are stacked within relative close proximity to one another and decide to play at the same time. But there are other times when the performers try to work collaboratively, taking turns.

“Then people eating [nearby] can listen to a show instead of two shows simultaneously,” he said.

Concerns for carts

Cart owners have also recently expressed concerns about crowds that occasionally form nearby, closing off access to their mobile businesses and forcing them to shut down while they wait out the performance.

Deborah Kravitz, a partner with Provenzano Resources Inc., which manages the carts on behalf of City Hall and Bayside, said that the merchants appreciate and love the street performers, but believe some changes need to be made to establish a protective zone to keep crowds away from the small retailers.

“What happens with the more active performers is the crowd comes against the carts,” Kravitz said. “For safety reasons, they need to close their gates and they stay there but that can be two hours because that is how long street performers stay in one location.”

There are a total of 20 carts scattered throughout the promenade.

“They understand that street performers are supposed to draw a crowd, they understand how far apart they need to be,” she said.

Abdul Aziz, who owns Buckle Up, a cart specializing in belts, said while he never shuts down the carts, he fears that some of his merchandise could be stolen because of the difficulty in monitoring the station with a crowd around it.

“When the crowd surrounds the cart, it’s not visible at all,” he said. “They should stand a certain number of feet away from the cart.”

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