To temper noise and nightlife crowds, Raleigh leaders last August adopted new sidewalk dining rules that many downtown business owners decried as an overreach and that became a divisive issue during the City Council election.
After pushback from business owners, and after the election, the council loosened some restrictions, allowing outdoor dining as late as 2 a.m. on weekend nights. The panel also launched an effort to review others that affected downtown’s appearance.
The council on Tuesday adopted several sidewalk dining rule changes recommended by a review board, effectively rolling back some of the controversial rules established last summer.
Specifically, the council scrapped rules requiring businesses to erect above-ground barriers like stanchions around their outdoor dining areas. The city will instead use ground-level medallions like Durham does.
The council ditched a mandate that businesses post “no alcohol beyond this point” signs near outdoor area exit points and will instead allow them in windows.
The council also introduced a new requirement that outdoor furniture be smaller than 42 inches in height, width or length. But in an effort to preserve some communal seating, it will allow businesses to move furniture around within their designated dining space – which was prohibited after the August crackdown.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane dismissed the notion that the move gives credence to allegations that the council initially overreached.
“The rules that we did last summer were in response to some serious problems,” McFarlane said. The rule changes “are just the growing pains of a city that’s going very quickly.”
Tuesday’s changes were suggested by a group of residents who studied them for eight weeks this year. The group accepted feedback from downtown residents and business owners throughout the process.
The council approved the changes unanimously, despite concerns from council members Russ Stephenson and David Cox. They said they worry that, in the absence of above-ground barriers, police will have more trouble enforcing rules requiring restaurant patrons to stay in designated dining areas.
“Going from stanchions to medallions is going to be a great benefit to operators. ... But I don’t see any indications that operators are going to be going out of their way to self-enforce,” Stephenson said.
He suggested a rule that would allow businesses to use stanchions rather than take a strike on the city’s “three strike” violation system. Raleigh revokes sidewalk dining permits from businesses that violate city rules three times. But other council members saw his suggestion as unnecessary and regressive.
It’s going to be pretty easy to tell who’s following the rules and who’s not following the rules.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane
“It’s going to be pretty easy to tell who’s following the rules and who’s not following the rules,” McFarlane said.
Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin invoked a quote Stephenson made months ago, saying the stanchions contributed to a downtown aesthetic akin to a flea market. City staff noted that only three of the 31 violations issued since August were related to stray patrons or dining layout.
Other restrictions are still in place. The city still limits each restaurant to one person per 15 square feet of dining space and cuts off sidewalk dining at midnight Sunday through Thursday nights.
In a separate but related move, the council changed the way businesses in the city’s downtown plazas – City, Exchange and Market – acquire outdoor dining permits. Rather than go through city staff like other businesses do, they must acquire permits from the City Council.
The move doesn’t affect Bolt Bistro & Bar, which leases space from the city in Exchange Plaza. Bolt’s lease allows seating in the plaza. It will affect Z Pizza, located on the southern end of Fayetteville Street in City Plaza. Z Pizza doesn’t have outdoor dining but wants it.
As part of the move, the council asked the city’s Urban Design Center to work with the nonprofit Downtown Raleigh Alliance and others to determine the best uses for Raleigh’s plazas.
Stephen Drotts, Z Pizza co-owner, said he’s encouraged that city leaders want to hear from experts on the best use of plaza space.
“I think the general public wants more cafe dining,” he said. “I have several customers at each event who leave to go down the street for cafe dining.”