After less than a year, most of Raleigh’s new sidewalk dining rules are going stale.
A group of residents tasked with reviewing Raleigh’s rules for businesses that offer dining on downtown sidewalks finished an eight-week review of them Wednesday and wants the City Council to make drastic changes – from scrapping the city’s stanchions and sign requirements to banning picnic tables.
The city’s Appearance Commission is scheduled to review the committee’s recommendations at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. The City Council is likely to finally hear them at its April 19 meeting.
The council instituted the new rules in August after downtown residents complained that nightlife crowds were too loud, too messy and sometimes clogged the sidewalks so much that it became a safety concern.
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The “Outdoor Seating Design Review Committee,” a subgroup of the Appearance Commission, analyzed the rules through the lens of what makes downtown aesthetically inviting while also considering the concerns of business owners and residents, said Brian O’Haver, the committee chairman.
Meetings were often tedious and the whole process took longer than expected – the committee scheduled only six meetings at the outset – but the result was worth it, O’Haver said. “I think we’ve done this as fairly and efficiently as we can,” he said.
The rules, which have been controversial, require businesses to:
▪ Erect “above ground barriers” such as stanchions around their sidewalk dining areas.
▪ Post “no alcohol beyond this point” signs.
▪ Allow for only one diner per 15 square feet of its designated sidewalk space and ensure that all outdoor customers remain seating.
Council members also required businesses to stop sidewalk dining service at midnight Sunday through Thursday and at 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights. In November, the council voted to relax its dining cutoff time – allowing for service until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights – and instructed the Appearance Commission to review the rules.
The committee, which has taken input during meetings from residents and business owners, wants to:
▪ Delete the stanchion requirement in favor of other dining area markers, such as medallions, because stanchions and ropes are ugly.
▪ Ditch the “no alcohol” signs because they, too, are ugly and because businesses are already required by state law to keep diners within their space.
▪ Allow businesses more than one diner per 15 square feet of sidewalk space, so long as the diners remain seated at furniture that’s been approved by City Hall.
One person in the audience suggested that scrapping the outdoor occupancy space would lead to a louder downtown.
“If you give them more seats, you are going backwards,” he said.
But committee members said other rules – requiring furniture to be of a certain size, placed a certain way and that all customers remain seated – would ensure that crowds and noises remained reasonable.
“It’s not significantly increasing the occupant load of the space, it’s increasing it a tiny bit,” said member Brandy Thompson.
“We are still trying to keep a reasonable butts-in-seats number,” O’Haver said.
The committee’s comments echoed those of Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who in November said she thinks the city’s requirement that all outdoor customers remain seated is the main reason downtown walkways are clearer and quieter at night.
Still, life didn’t necessarily get easier for business owners. Committee members are seeking tighter furniture regulations.
To create a more cohensive look downtown, the committee wants to prohibit businesses from stacking their outdoor furniture on the sidewalk during off-hours, create design guidelines for outdoor furniture and ban picnic tables – but only on Fayetteville Street.
Paddy O’Beers, which has picnic tables on Fayetteville, doesn’t mind replacing them with something else, owner Zack Medford said.
Proposed rules also require all tables to seat a maximum of four people and that all furniture is made for commercial use. Jennifer Martin, executive director of ShopLocalRaleigh, which advocates for local businesses, said she’s encouraged by the proceedings.
“With the outdoor dining season almost upon us, it’s important that businesses know the city’s expectations have clear direction,” she said.