Wake County

Does downtown Raleigh have a drinking problem?

A young woman sits on a Fayetteville Street bench with her head in her hands, vomit between her feet.

A few yards away, police officers stand around a young man who sits handcuffed on the curb.

In front of Exchange Plaza, another young woman restrains her male friend in the middle of the road. He’s yelling toward someone on the sidewalk that he’s ready to fight.

It’s a little past midnight on a Friday, and hundreds of young people are on downtown Raleigh’s main drag. Lines of more than 40 people snake outside the most popular spots, while other groups of 20- and 30-somethings loudly hop from bar to bar.

Raleigh has spent millions of dollars fixing up its downtown in recent years in hopes of creating a vibrant urban center. But as a wave of bars have opened to capitalize on Fayetteville Street’s revival, questions are being raised about whether too much of that resurgence is being fueled by alcohol.

“I think downtown has a problem where we have too much of one business in a concentrated area,” Councilwoman Kay Crowder said.

This summer, city leaders have moved to suppress a nightlife scene that they say has become too raucous. Their actions have left bar patrons perplexed about the vision for downtown, business owners fearing for their future and others worried about Raleigh’s image as it prepares to host major events such as the Hopscotch Music Festival and the World of Bluegrass.

“It’s loud, but it’s not out of control,” said Brandon Barnes, 22, drinking with friends outside of Anchor Bar on a recent Friday. “Out of all the places I’ve been, Raleigh is one of the most civilized.”

Nathan Mote, 28, a bar patron celebrating his birthday with friends, said he doesn’t see why the city is limiting something that makes downtown special.

“One of the most attractive things about Fayetteville Street is the outdoor areas. I love the fact that you can have a drink out here,” Mote said.

Bar and restaurant owners say their revenues are down 15 percent to 30 percent since the city began requiring them to stop serving alcohol on public sidewalks at midnight Sunday through Thursday and 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights.

“This is the first time we’ve seen bad numbers that weren’t due to bad weather,” said Ken Yowell, owner of Calavera, which has been open on East Davie Street for nearly four years.

The curfew, approved in a 5-3 City Council vote Aug. 4 and implemented Aug. 14, is meant to reduce noise created by nighttime bar crowds, city leaders say. The rules also limit downtown bars and restaurants to serving one person per 15 square feet of their outdoor space, another attempt to reduce noise while keeping sidewalks clear.

The city won’t enforce the new outdoor capacity rule until later this year. When it does, staff estimates that at least nine of 18 Fayetteville district establishments will lose outdoor seating capacity.

Raleigh leaders cited the late-night bar crowds in a separate move in June when they approved plans to start charging a fee for night and weekend access to public parking decks downtown. Council members said they need additional funds to clean parking decks that are often vandalized and polluted by the bar crowds. The fees go into effect Dec. 31.

City leaders consider the moves to be independent efforts that address specific problems with safety and cleanliness, but some business owners and visitors see them as a crackdown aimed at bars and nightlife.

“This is, I believe, the first time the council has taken action that puts the brakes on revitalizing downtown,” said Jack Cozort, an attorney representing some of the bars.

The city’s shifting attitude about alcohol and late-night carousing has even caused one developer to incorporate such concerns into its development proposal. Kane Realty, which is seeking approval for an office tower and residential building in the warehouse district, recently volunteered to prohibit bars and nightclubs from its project as a condition of approval. The council is expected to consider Kane’s project on Tuesday.

‘Vomit and trash’

In supporting the sidewalk rules, Raleigh City Council members said they felt compelled to address complaints levied by downtown residents and city staff.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane said her biggest fear is that someone would get hit by a car while trying to walk around a crowd of people blocking a sidewalk. “If you live downtown, you know it’s going to be noisier than the suburbs. But it shouldn’t be dirty and out of control and impassible,” McFarlane said, adding that bar owners wasted their chance to self-govern.

“It’s not pleasant on Sunday morning when people are coming downtown and there’s vomit and trash,” she said. “People who are using the sidewalks for their business model need to clean that up.”

The rise in complaints has come even as the number of residents living downtown has remained relatively stable. Although the downtown area is in the midst of an apartment construction boom, only a few of the new projects have opened.

The city said it received 51 complaints about downtown nightlife between June 2 and July 30. A dozen of them were filed by police or city staff, and 15 came from three people.

Twenty-five of those complaints were about loud noise, something many bar owners and customers see as an inevitability for any healthy downtown. Residents should adjust to the businesses, not the other way around, said Matt Duncan, 30, a graphic designer who lives in Five Points.

“You don’t hear people who live near the airport complaining about airplanes,” Duncan said, standing outside Anchor Bar with a beer in his hand.

More retail sought

Opponents of the sidewalk rules say the council voted to appease a vocal minority. The prospect of losing drinking time on the sidewalk drew dozens of opponents to committee and council meetings, where they easily outnumbered supporters. Many of the opponents wore shirts emblazoned with the words “Save the patios,” a slogan coined on social media.

City leaders and staff stress that they’re not taking away anyone’s patio, they’re trying to clear public sidewalks that the city has allowed the bars and restaurants to use.

“A public sidewalk is not a ‘patio,’ ” Katherine Pressley, a staff assistant, wrote to a resident in an email. “... [C]ertain public safety concerns have for too long been ignored such as noise, cleanliness of the streets and sidewalks, and compliance with state alcoholic beverage laws.”

In explaining their push for more regulation, city staff members produce photos of vomit and liquor bottles found along Fayetteville Street and ask: Is this the type of vibrancy Raleigh wants to be known for?

In an interview, staff members involved with enforcing the new rules told stories of seeing young men urinating on Fayetteville Street plants and passing out on the sidewalk. Asked if Raleigh has too many bars, they paused.

“We’re moving towards making sure we have managed growth,” said Marchell Adams David, an assistant city manager. “I don’t know if I’d say we have too many.”

Adams David and Derrick Remer, the city’s emergency and special events manager, echoed McFarlane in saying the Fayetteville corridor could use a greater variety of retail.

“The city is trying to find a balance of everything and trying make sure we’re developing something that’s sustainable long-term,” Remer said.

A 10-year vision plan drafted by city staff and planning consultants calls on downtown to wean itself off of nightlife attractions in favor of more retail. But retailers follow residential growth, and it might be several years before downtown has enough residents to attract more merchants.

Police patrols increased

Since the new rules went into effect, many late-night bar patrons have noticed an increased police presence both inside bars, and on sidewalks.

Raleigh’s police and fire departments have increased downtown patrols on nights and weekends by adjusting worker schedules so they wouldn’t have to bear additional costs, said John Boyette, a city spokesman. But the city might need to increase its patrol and inspections budgets in the future, he said.

Between Aug. 14 and Wednesday, the city inspected 32 establishments and handed out warning notices to 26 of them, said Deputy Police Chief J.C. Perry. Businesses were warned for a range of potential violations, from serving alcohol outdoors past the curfew to blocking sidewalk access.

In addition to the sidewalk rules, Raleigh inspectors on Aug. 14 began enforcing a state law that they thought prohibited bars and restaurants from having split layouts, meaning an establishment has tables on both sides of the walking path they leave for pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The city later reversed course after reaching out to North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement, which clarified that state law allows for split layouts, Adams David said.

The law was vague, so the city worked with the ALE to clarify the issue, she said.

The confusion, citations, loss of revenue and increased police presence have frustrated some bar and restaurant managers.

Hope Levinson, a manager of the Tasty 8’s hot dog joint on Fayetteville Street, questioned the city’s motives after what she saw on Aug. 21.

It was about 1:20 a.m. A fire alarm in her building had been going off for 10 minutes before Raleigh inspectors came walking up her block toward the piercing noise.

With the alarm continuing to sound, the inspectors stopped at Tasty 8’s to inform Levinson that her business was in violation of the new sidewalk curfew: Two customers were eating hot dogs at one of her tables in the public space after 1 a.m.

“Can you believe it? There’s a fire alarm going off waking people up, and they stopped to try to penalize us,” Levinson told an N&O reporter who witnessed the incident.

Paddy O’Beers operators became so upset by the rules that they moved two metal city benches to create more seating space for customers in front of their bar – prompting citations and fines from the city.

The three owners were charged with vandalism because they removed the benches by cutting the bolts that connected them to the sidewalk. The owners plan to pay for the damage and comply with the city when it reinstalls the benches to their original positions, said Zack Medford, a co-owner.

“It was a lapse in judgment,” he said. “We want to comply with the rules and work with the city to continue to run a successful business in a downtown that caters so well to outdoor seating.”

Hard to muffle

The city plans to revisit the sidewalk rules after a three-month evaluation period that ends in late October. City leaders and staff say it will be measured by how well bars and residents comply with the rules, as well as feedback from residents.

City staff couldn’t say whether the sidewalk roll-up has reduced noise in the Fayetteville Street corridor so far.

Many bar owners and patrons believe the new rules make no difference, but city staff members say it’s premature to judge the rules’ effectiveness before every bar comes into compliance.

Between cars and motorcycles revving their engines and young people yelling down the street, the noise on Fayetteville will be hard to muffle even if business owners follow the rules.

On a recent Friday night, a Paddy O’Beers manager gave her outdoor customers several warnings about the curfew shortly before 1 a.m.

Upon hearing the final warning, at 12:59 a.m., Crystal Grantham, 24, raised her beer and turned to her three friends.

“One minute until Raleigh gets boring!” she yelled, before closing her tab and walking to another bar.

Staff writer David Bracken contributed.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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