Downtown bars may be allowed to keep tables on the sidewalk after all.
Raleigh staff recently proposed that the city ban businesses from serving customers on public sidewalks, unless the businesses sell substantial amounts of food. The idea set downtown abuzz for more than a week, with some bar owners saying the change would cut deep into their business.
The idea has spawned a boycott and a social-media slogan, #SaveThePatios – though, to be clear, privately owned patios would not be affected. A candidate for Raleigh City Council, Craig Ralph, even stood outside City Hall with a T-shirt bearing the hashtag on Tuesday afternoon.
Hearing the uproar, staff on Tuesday came forward with alternatives that would allow bars and private clubs to continue seating customers on the sidewalk, while still creating new rules for outdoor service.
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City staff say their goal is to keep sidewalks safe and passable. In some cases, pedestrians might only find a small path through a dense crowd, said Nicolette Fulton, an attorney for the city, in a presentation to the Law and Public Safety committee.
The new proposals would require owners to keep larger portions of the sidewalk clear and that they clean the sidewalk, among other provisions.
One staff proposal would reduce the number of people allowed in a typical outdoor seating area to one person per 15 square feet in their outdoor dining areas. Business owners would have to cordon off their outdoor areas and keep security or a manager on hand after 10 p.m.
Staff also have proposed a suspension of all sidewalk hospitality service on the Fourth of July and First Night due to large crowds downtown, though the city itself would continue to sell beer on the streets.
The new proposals received a better reaction than the original, but the committee neither endorsed nor rejected it.
Instead, Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin suggested the city temporarily extend the current rules, allowing businesses to keep their sidewalk seating permits until August 1 rather than the current July 1 expiration date.
The committee also suggested the city convene a committee of people in the hospitality business and begin to enforce its current rules more strictly.
The committee approved those recommendations in a 2-1 split, with Councilman Wayne Maiorano dissenting from Baldwin and Councilman John Odom. Maiorano wanted to include a representative for residents, but Baldwin said the group was meant for businesses to better understand the rules.
The full Raleigh City Council has the final say on the matter and could act at an upcoming meeting.
Staff originally contended that the sidewalk seating permits were always meant for establishments that serve food. Opponents countered that many sidewalk customers are only drinking, not eating, regardless of the venue. The affected business owners also objected to the speed of the proposal.
“We had so few days to respond,” said Zack Medford, who has a stake in several businesses that would be affected. Baldwin says she still doesn’t know who came up with the proposed ban on sidewalk drinking, despite her inquiries.
City staff have said that one impetus for the change was a bar’s use of an outdoor mini-bar during a recent festival. The bar had applied for permits from the city and state, but it apparently submitted different drawings to each, invalidating its permit for the booze station, according to assistant city manager Marchell Adams-David.
The ensuing controversy spread far enough to prompt an apparent boycott of The Raleigh Times. An executive for the restaurant’s parent company, Empire Eats, had expressed support for the new seating limits, while its owner, Greg Hatem, previously called for a toned-down downtown.
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 600 people had said on Facebook that they would join the boycott.
“At best, (Hatem is) publicly supporting a bill to put his competitors out of business while being a hypocrite,” wrote Kevin Garofalo, the boycott’s organizer.
Empire Eats had no involvement in the drafting of the proposal, according to city staff and the company.
Currently, 28 businesses hold sidewalk seating permits. Of those, seven are not classified as restaurants in city records: Alchemy, Capital City Tavern, Coglin’s, Common 414, Foundation, Paddy O’Beers and TAZ’s.
The idea of limiting sidewalk service does enjoy some support, particularly among people living along Fayetteville Street.
“We have been suffering through all kinds of problems,” said Will Marks, a downtown resident, referring to the ever-present tension between living, working and libation.