A two-hour-long debate about which furniture and furniture arrangements are appropriate for downtown Raleigh sidewalks ended with a recommendation to ban picnic tables.
The Outdoor Seating Design Review Committee, a subgroup of Raleigh’s Appearance Commission, has been tasked with reviewing downtown’s outdoor dining regulations by the City Council. The council approved new regulations in August, but asked for a review after business owners and their patrons complained that the new rules hurt revenue, cause confusion and create an ugly atmosphere.
Committee members, who met for a seventh time Wednesday, have already agreed that they want the City Council to scrap its requirements that businesses to erect “above-ground” barriers such as stanchions and “no alcohol beyond this point” signs around their dining areas.
Wednesday, committee members decided that picnic tables didn’t fit with the historic, urban character on Fayetteville Street.
“We’re trying to take into account the character of the street,” said Brian O’Haver, the committee chairman. “I think the community, including the business owners, have agreed that they’re not appropriate (on Fayetteville) but might be appropriate in other areas of the city.”
The committee’s recommendations aren’t binding. The City Council, expected to review proposed changes in March, can adopt or reject them.
Committee members said they hesitated to ban the tables because those made with finished wood look nice, and because communal seating is popular. Members changed their minds after business owners said they’d have no problem with a ban, so long as they could still have long tables with detached chairs to fit crowds.
Paddy O’Beers doesn’t mind replacing its two picnic tables on North Fayetteville with a custom-made communal table, said Zack Medford, one of its owners.
“It would better complement our business anyway,” Medford said. “We think this is a move in the right direction and are happy to comply.”
Under the committee’s recommendation, Calavera Empanadas and Tequila on Blount Street wouldn’t need to remove its bright red picnic tables from the sidewalk. But owner Ken Yowell said he wouldn’t put up a fight if his business was required to.
“We want to be good neighbors,” Yowell said.
A controversial history
While residents praised the council for attempting to reduce noise caused by nightlife crowds, the regulations were controversial when passed.
They drew criticism from business owners, employees and patrons who wore matching shirts to City Council meetings in protest. They became a talking point for City Council candidates during the October election and were the inspiration for the political ad that suggested the rules prevent Raleigh from becoming “drunktown.”
Though the City Council in November relaxed one of the most controversial rules – that sidewalk dining be cut off at 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights – committee members have tried to be as deliberate and fair as possible when reviewing the rules, said O’Haver, who works as a landscape architect.
The meetings, all open to the public, are held in room 303 of City Hall. O’Haver often allows audience members – at least one downtown resident and business owner attends every meeting – to offer their opinion as committee members deliberate.
O’Haver and his colleagues also frequently ask city staff for background information on the rules: Why are they in place? Does state law require such a rule? How many times have downtown businesses violated the rule?
Taking longer than expected
O’Haver scheduled six meetings to review everything from stanchions to furniture styles, arrangement and storage – and then rewrite the rules as the committee sees fit. But the process has taken longer than expected.
A long debate Wednesday over whether the city should require outdoor furniture to fit the “scale” of the usable space left some members exhausted and frustrated. A city rule already limits businesses to one diner per 15 square feet of usable space.
The committee didn’t cover everything it wanted to – should businesses be allowed to leave their furniture on the sidewalk during off-hours? – so O’Haver scheduled an eighth meeting for next week. The move was met with groans, but O’Haver thinks a prolonged review is merited.
“It’s a complicated issue,” he said. “Really thinking through things, listening to the public and trying to figure out impacts of our decisions is important, and I’m not sure that happened in the first go-round.”