Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and pier have for years been two of the most sought-after locations on the Westside for street performers to show off their acts.
In addition to the Venice Beach Boardwalk, the promenade and pier, which also draw large crowds throughout the year, are local hotspots for a variety of acts by performers, some of whom alternate between the areas.
And like the boardwalk within the city of Los Angeles, the promenade and pier are subject to regulations by their city for the time, place and manner of public expression. Over the years the city of Santa Monica has periodically revised its street performance regulations and related laws as needed to reflect changing circumstances and evolving legal issues.
City staff noted that it has been several years since the council last reviewed the effectiveness of its performer regulations and in the meantime, changes have occurred in both the use of public spaces and the law. City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the council at its Oct. 26 meeting that staff have received a number of suggestions from police, the Bayside District Corporation, street performers and community members about the need to update the regulations to reflect current realities.
One of the issues that has attracted increased concern is amplified noise from performances on the promenade.
“There’s way too much noise. It’s aggressiveŠ and it’s difficult to have dinner on outdoor patios,” Kathleen Rawson, CEO of the Bayside District Corporation, which manages downtown, described of the situation. “One thing we know for sure is that the level of noise has to be reduced.”
Staff noted that more promenade performers seem to be using amplification systems and they’ve received complaints about how performers turn up the volume of their systems in an effort to compete with each other. Singer Christina Kessler confirmed this occurrence to the council.
According to staff, local law regulates decibel levels but not amplification, and sound readings are difficult to take on the promenade.
“Certainly the majority of noise complaints are valid,” said Steven Bradford, who conducts sound monitoring for the Bayside District. “It’s been my experience that the most effective anecdote to excessive volume on the promenade is citing performers who are in violation.”
One solution that has been suggested is the banning of amplification, but staff said it could create legal risks as sound amplification is protected by the First Amendment. The consequences of such a proposal were recently brought to light when a U.S. District Court judge last month blocked a portion of the Venice boardwalk law related to its amplified sound restrictions.
“Like us, the city of L.A. worked hard at their laws and this is an example of how difficult it is to regulate in that area,” Moutrie told the council. “Nevertheless, we need to try to ensure the best possible use of our public space.”
Rawson said while the Bayside District values the street performers, the agency hopes to address the noise issues to make the downtown area more livable.
“This council spent a lot of time trying to fashion a noise ordinance that was not only reasonable but enforceable, and from everything I’m seeingŠ we’ve somehow fallen short,” City Councilman Kevin McKeown said.
Councilman Richard Bloom added that he is particularly concerned about the volume issue.
“It is just deafening out there on the promenade most nights,” Bloom said. “I think all of us want to strongly protect free speech and have as free a forum for speech as humanly possible, but in some respects we have a problem.”
Among the other regulation updates that staff recommended is the consideration of new activities that may or may not fall within the current definitions of “perform” and “visual art.” Another issue suggested was changing the law to require performers to maintain control of their own equipment, allowing for the equipment to be moved more quickly in the event of an emergency.
The need for regulations to better prevent sex offenders from dressing up in character costumes for performances intended to draw children was also discussed.
“I really think safety needs to be our overriding concern,” Councilwoman Gleam Davis said.
The City Council voted Oct. 26 to direct staff to return with recommendations regarding the various regulation issues that were discussed at the meeting.