Some two dozen representatives of downtown businesses gathered Monday for an occasionally cacophonous conference at City Hall.
The topic: Sidewalk drinking.
A proposal headed to the Raleigh City Council on Tuesday would prevent several bars from seating patrons on public sidewalks, changing the city’s policy of the past few years.
If the council approves the new rules later this month, bars such as Paddy O’Beers could lose their sidewalk seating permits as soon as July 1. Establishments that make at least 30 percent of their money by selling food, however, would be allowed to keep their tables on public property.
“The intent for outdoor dining has always been food,” said Nicolette Fulton, an attorney for the city. In fact, the city ordinance refers to “outdoor dining permits” for “restaurants.”
However the city has not acted on that distinction in recent years. Paddy O’ Beers (whose name plays on “patio beers”) and other bars are permitted for outdoor seating, though they serve no food.
And some who stand to lose, like Dan Lovenheim, had strong words for the city. Two of his businesses – Alchemy and Capital City Tavern – have sidewalk seating.
“We feel like you’re trying to hit us over the head with a hammer. I’ve been here for 10 years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Lovenheim said, calling for a delay and warning of “a war” if Raleigh’s bars lost weekend seating.
Several business representatives said that they hadn’t heard of the potential change until Friday or later.
Marchell Adams David, assistant city manager, said that staff hoped to have the changes completed before the city renews seating permits on July 1. The proposal is a response, she said, to complaints about sidewalk seating over Memorial Day weekend and during the Brewgaloo festival, she said.
One bar apparently illegally operated a mini-bar outside during Brewgaloo. Staff also want to address liability concerns and make sure that sidewalks remain accessible, Adams David said. Council, meanwhile, has heard complaints about noise and disruptions.
The ordinance proposed for Raleigh is modeled after similar rules in Austin, Texas. It also would ban all sidewalk seating on July 4.
At one point, Lovenheim polled the Monday morning meeting about the proposal. Its only vocal supporter was a representative of Empire Properties. Empire’s flagship, The Raleigh Times restaurant and bar, regularly puts large crowds on the sidewalk of Hargett Street. It likely sells enough food to keep its seating permits.
“How do you make it outdoor dining, and not outdoor drinking?” Fulton, the associate city attorney, asked.
Empire’s owner, Greg Hatem, has been calling recently for a toned-down nightlife, declaring somewhat famously that downtown was becoming “unlivable.”
Early this year, Hatem successfully requested that the council delay several other bars’ requests for permits that would allow them to keep their doors open while playing amplified music. Among those affected were Lovenheim and the owners of several other bars along Fayetteville Street.
But Hatem’s company had nothing to do with the current proposal, Adams David said.
Lovenheim, meanwhile, argued that downtown revelers would still fill sidewalks and make noise, even without seating. The current model makes owners responsible for their sidewalks, he said. But under the proposed model, he said, “The moment those people exit my establishment without a drink, they’re your problem.”
An online petition opposing the restrictions picked up close to 5,000 signatures in a few days. On Tuesday, the council will decide whether to schedule a public hearing on the matter for June 16.