The disagreement over commandeering public spaces for private use began several years ago when a few bar owners along Fayetteville Street leased properties – I will call these “challenged bars” – that were too small for what they had in mind.
To compensate for the lack of space inside, they took advantage of Raleigh’s Private Use of Public Spaces ordinance, expanding their business service capacity to the sidewalks. Early on, the complications of this outside, spirituous revelry were manageable. However, as Fayetteville Street’s nighttime population increased, the unchecked partying went viral.
Most people familiar with this problem think it is about the noise, the vomit, the overserving and serving to minors. These are merely symptoms of the greater problem – the “let’s attract people downtown for alcohol-stimulated merriment” approach from the last downtown revitalization strategy. Unfortunately, when the tactic began working, the city’s leaders and advisers failed to decelerate the increase of bar openings. This initial misstep festered unchecked until sometime in 2014-2015, when the consequences created two opposed factions.
The city council was clearly slow to comprehend, but even now it continues to mishandle the problem by a treatment regimen composed of superficial solutions including the vigorous early morning cleanup of bottles, cans and vomit from our public sidewalks. Once again, we are attacking the symptoms, not the disease. For example:
▪ We continue to reward the “challenged-bar” business model, which attracts only one kind of business downtown.
▪ We allow more “challenged bars” to open, thereby promoting a downtown retail environment that is often unappealing to prospective retailers, which in turn checks our efforts to develop a balanced downtown business population.
▪ Our public space policy will once again define Raleigh in a less desirable light than we might like, and it is in many ways directly in contravention to the new strategic plan released last fall.
Commercial interests are not inherently bad, and neither are bars or people who go to bars. What is bad, however, is our inappropriate response to Raleigh’s growing pains by continuing to disregard the contribution that Raleigh’s public spaces are making and can continue to make for the common good.
It is time to face up to the fact that the well-intentioned management of our downtown revitalization program has been ineffective when it comes to preserving the integrity of Raleigh’s public spaces. There is no dishonor in making a mistake. After all, we are human. It is when we compound earlier mistakes with further blunders that the adults in the room must stand up and say “enough.”
When the city council passed ordinances last year requiring these bars to cease serving outside patrons by 1 a.m. on weekend nights and to limit the number of people who could legally be in an approved PUPS space – no more than one person per 15 square feet – many of us thought we were making progress. Regrettably, however, when the council reversed itself on the former policy and moved the service time back to 2 a.m., that identical “we” felt betrayed. Now, it seems that the sidewalk dining capacity may be allowed to increase, as well.
Before a study group makes its recommendation and the city calls the question, I pose the following questions for response:
▪ What is our long-term goal for Fayetteville Street?
▪ Why does our city council believe it is a great idea to allow sidewalk drinking – much less dining – until 2 a.m.?
▪ Do we think so little of our city that we believe no one wants to come downtown unless it is to drink?
▪ Will the new policy be easy to enforce like the current ordinance, which is easy? Example: If the PUPS space in front of Bar X is 5 feet by 30 feet, that’s 150 square feet. There can be no more than 10 people in front of Bar X! Simple, quick, enforceable!
I was at the city council meetings when the city staff presented the merits of the 15 square foot per person rule. I applauded the council for supporting it. It made sense then, and it makes sense now.
Ironically, if the council’s position on PUPS weakens, Fayetteville Street, the “main street of North Carolina,” will be right back where it was six short months ago: a downtown street always in need of early morning cleanups of the leavings of bar patrons and an anemic downtown retail condition that will not attract key retail opportunities.
Michael K. Stephens is formerly with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.