Shortly after 1 a.m. on one of the coldest nights of the year, Mike Weidinger slinked out of the Club Mallard on San Pablo and Washington avenues. Wearing a sweatshirt and hooded jacket, he hunkered down to avoid the wind. In his right hand, he carried a small Canon HD camcorder. He aimed it at a few parked cars walking up the first block of Washington Ave., then stopped at Madison and filmed the corner. Raindrops splattered down as he hiked up the next block and gathered more footage of parked cars. He paused again at Washington and Jackson Street, pointed his camera down at the concrete, turned around and aimed at the two blocks below. Nothing. He pulled his hood up tighter.
"I hit the corner just to see where people are coming," Weidinger said. "If no one's walking up the street, I turn it off to save the battery." He flipped the switch on his camera and strolled jauntily back down the street. "People are always asking, 'Are you filming a documentary?' And we're like, 'Nah.'"
Actually, Weidinger and the other doormen at Club Mallard have amassed enough clips for a fairly substantial documentary about Washington Avenue — or rather, the ground on Washington Avenue, as seen between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. For the past two months, they have dutifully walked the same two blocks every twenty minutes, three nights a week. That makes fifteen walks a night, all caught on film. If you assume two minutes per walk, then Club Mallard has at least ninety hours worth of footage, showing parked cars, dark street corners, and maybe the occasional pedestrian. It's all time- and date-stamped.
It wasn't his idea to make a documentary about the ground. Club Mallard's owner, Doug Miller, is responding to complaints from the neighborhood. Although the bar has been around for nearly a century, it's become a point of contention only in the past year, when neighbors started complaining about noise and litter. Miller responded by hiring an extra doorman and having his staff take regular walks along the premises. Two months ago he asked them to start videotaping the walks.
"Rumors were circulating that we were just blowing them off," Miller said. "I wanted a record that we were going out every thirty minutes, and that this is what we see. We're doing as much as we can."
The drama began earlier this year, when a couple residents began grousing to Albany police. Most complained about noise, said Albany's community engagement specialist Karina Tindol. People would leave the bar at 1 or 2 a.m. and talk on the way to their cars. Sometimes they would stand around and smoke a cigarette. Often they would park up the street from Club Mallard, in residential areas of Madison or Washington avenues. A couple people griped about public urination. Some grumbled about trash. Some accused Club Mallard of creating a DUI problem, even though police records show that it's consistent with the city's average of one to two DUIs per bar per year. The club's most vocal antagonist, Jordan Sampietro, declined to speak to the Express, but his views are well-documented online. In a letter to the editor of Albany Patch, he cited "DUI crashes," "constant traffic," "loud noise," and — in the last two months — "videotaping harassment." Miller's efforts to appease his neighbors may have backfired.
This wave of hostility is unprecedented in the Mallard's history. The bar served as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It was one in a long line of wall-to-wall nightclubs back when San Pablo Avenue was a red light district off the main highway. It predates any residential development in Albany by several decades. Miller bought the bar in 1994 and says he only received a couple complaints prior to 2010. "One was about noise, so we put air conditioning in, blocked out the windows, and soundproofed all the patios to keep noise from going into the neighborhood," he said. The other was about motorcycles, since the East Bay Rats used to hang out there.
But in the past year, complaints have increased. Tindol responded by holding several community meetings, the first on July 8, with sixteen neighbors in attendance. She addressed them in a well-practiced, community-engagement-specialist fashion: "I was asking residents 'What was your experience? 'What were some challenges you faced in that neighborhood?' Tindol then encouraged them to keep "activity logs" to document any mayhem that could be associated with Club Mallard. But only three neighbors submitted logs on September 15, documenting the same complaints they'd kvetched about earlier.
In August, Tindol held a follow-up meeting, this time with Miller and bar manager Nate Skelton included in the proceedings. Miller agreed to distribute fliers in the bar asking patrons to be mindful of the neighborhood. He had Skelton post a message to that effect on Club Mallard's Facebook page. He'd already been doing the foot patrols for more than a year, but he began videotaping them. About a month ago one of the neighbors offered to chip in $100 for Miller to hire a private security force for one weekend, just to see if it helped ensure peace and quiet. Miller contributed an additional $200 out of pocket. But the extra security didn't help. That same weekend, a guy punched one of Miller's employees in the nose after being denied entry to the bar. It was one of only three assault and battery cases associated with the bar that year, but the extra security didn't prevent it. "There's not much difference between a guy in uniform and my guys," Miller said.
Albany police increased their checks of the area surrounding Club Mallard, clocking more than 370 patrols for 2010, up from ten to twenty in previous years. Even with the enhanced law enforcement, they saw no increase in assaults, break-ins, DUIs, or loitering. "So there was no evidence that Club Mallard was any higher than other bars in terms of illegal behavior," Miller said. The Traffic and Safety Commission also installed a speed meter on Washington Avenue, right by Sampietro's house. It showed that the average person's speed is 26-27 miles an hour, which wouldn't justify a installing any type of mitigation.
But the flap has been an assault on Miller's pocketbook. Hiring an extra doorperson isn't a lot of skin off his back, since he can rotate personnel to his other bars, Thalassa, in Berkeley, and Kona Club, in Oakland. That said, he's taken other hits: $900 for the Canon HD, $2,000 for new sensors and additional lighting, $250 for a pressure washer to clean gum off the sidewalk, $80 for the garbage can, $180 to remove dirt from a street tree and install decorative river rock, all in response to neighbor complaints. Add in the extra doorman and the labor cost of holding additional staff meetings. It's a lot of extra expense.
While Albany isn't known for political conservatism, it's definitely got a small-town vibe. Property values are high, crime is low, and some people think you shouldn't have to lock your car up at night — even on Washington Avenue. "People want to have the warm neighborhood feel," Tindol said. "They feel like some of that's going away because there's more rental properties."
Even so, Tindol admitted that most of the complaints she's received have come from a single individual. Sampietro claims that the Mallard's video foot-patrols add a new, Big Brother-ish dimension to the fight. He says it's not really a man-vs.-bar thing, he and his neighbors are "reasonable people, with reasonable requests," as he wrote in the Albany Patch.
At this point, though, it's too late for Mallard Enemy Number One to disentangle himself from the argument.
"You want to go talk to him?" Weidinger asked. "He lives right over there." Weidinger pointed to a cluster of neat, well-kept houses on Madison Street. Then he aimed his Canon HD back at the ground.