It was mid-afternoon on a weekday and Derek Crump didn’t have to work, so he sat outside the Raleigh Times bar with a beer in his hand and five friends by his side.
The sun was out and the temperature was warm for November.
The atmosphere was great, Crump said, except for a black polyester band hovering between his table and passers-by on the Hargett Street sidewalk.
It’s an eyesore, the group said.
“As long as people stay at their tables, I don’t see why they’re necessary,” Crump said of the stanchions surrounding him.
Recent changes to Raleigh’s sidewalk dining rules require restaurants and bars with permits to erect an “above-ground” barrier between dining areas and the walkway. Establishments must also post signs to show where alcohol can be served outdoors.
The result: A variety of rule interpretations that prompted one city councilman, Russ Stephenson, to compare downtown sidewalks to a “flea market.”
So Raleigh leaders are taking another look at the rules. The City Council on Nov. 17 instructed Raleigh’s appearance commission to review Raleigh’s regulations on stanchions, outdoor furnishings and signs in outdoor seating areas.
“What we’ve got isn’t working,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said. “They all look different and they were all put up in haste.”
Capital Club 16, located in a historic building at the corner of Salisbury and Martin streets, has used thick, heavy rope. Anchor Bar on Fayetteville Street has used white chains. Further down Fayetteville, the beach-themed restaurant Twisted Mango is using orange twine. A couple businesses are showing the boundaries by placing tape on the sidewalk.
Council members didn’t give specific instructions to the appearance commission, which is comprised of residents they appointed. The rules should create consistency but allow for city officials to allow creative alternatives, council members said in interviews Sunday.
“They need to be something that reflects the public investment we’ve put in our downtown streets and sidewalks,” Councilman Bonner Gaylord said, referring to city renovations on Fayetteville Street years ago.
The appearance commission will proceed carefully and may schedule extra meetings when it starts its review in January, said chairman Brian O’Haver, a local landscape architect.
The sidewalk barrier requirements “are part of a bigger conversation we’re having down here about our identity and our character,” he said.
The stanchion, sign and outdoor seating capacity rules are part of a controversial set of sidewalk dining regulations that the City Council approved in August and revised in November.
The rules prompted debate about the future of downtown among stakeholders and became part of the campaign rhetoric prior to the recent City Council elections.
Some challengers said the rules deterred potential customers, hurting businesses and tarnishing Raleigh’s vibrancy. Supporters said the rules improved public safety and reduced late night noise by clearing walkways. One political action committee produced an ad suggesting the rules prevent downtown from becoming “drunk town.”
With the election out of the way, commission members said they’re interested in launching an objective evaluation of the rules.
The city can require prettier barriers. But it will struggle to make them practical for restaurants, said Michael Longo, operator of Twisted Mango.
Longo wants to get rid of the barrier requirement because they make it hard for his waiters and customers to move around.
“Our guests are tripping over the ropes to get to their tables,” he said.
Jedidiah Gant, an appearance commission member who runs the New Raleigh blog, said he hopes to come up with a nuanced solution that reflects the city’s artistic abilities.
Sidewalk dining has been governed thus far “with a sledgehammer, not with creative thinking,” Gant said.
How we got here
Raleigh began considering new sidewalk dining rules months ago after downtown residents complained about nightlife crowds blocking walkways and being too noisy. They’ve been a contentious topic ever since. Here’s a time line of key events:
July 28: The city’s Law and Public Safety Committee recommends new sidewalk dining rules that would cut off service at midnight Sunday through Thursday and at 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; require establishments to erect new signs and barriers; and limit sidewalk dining capacity one person per 15 square feet of space.
Aug. 4: Raleigh’s City Council votes 5-3 to adopt the new rules, with council members Mary-Ann Baldwin, Bonner Gaylord and Eugene Weeks dissenting.
Aug. 14: New sidewalk dining rules take effect.
Sept. 1: Zack Medford, owner of three downtown bars, creates “Keep Raleigh Vibrant” nonprofit, which hands out palm cards with images showing council candidates who oppose new sidewalk rules.
Sept. 30: Wake Citizens for Good Government, a local political action committee, launches an ad campaign against Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin and two council candidates who oppose the new sidewalk dining rules. The rules protect downtown from becoming “DrunkTown,” the ad says.
Oct. 5: Liberal activist Dean Debnam, who owns property downtown and runs Wake Citizens for Good Government, files a complaint with the N.C. Board of Elections alleging that Keep Raleigh Vibrant illegally communicated with some candidates and broke campaign finance law. The board is still investigating the complaint.
Oct. 6: Baldwin and Gaylord win re-election. Weeks loses. Challengers who opposed the rules lose.
Nov. 4: Raleigh’s City Council votes 6-2 to allow sidewalk dining until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, rather than 1 a.m.. Kay Crowder and Wayne Maiorano opposed the move.
Nov. 17: The City Council instructs Raleigh’s Appearance Commission to review rules governing sidewalk dining barriers and signs.