RALEIGH — The Raleigh City Council has halted discussion about its outdoor seating ordinance until August, but overcrowding and public safety issues must be addressed, Assistant City Manager Marchell Adams David told a June 18 meeting of the city’s hospitality committee.
“Let’s be real honest, folks,” David said at the committee’s initial meeting. “Fayetteville Street today doesn’t look like the Fayetteville Street of 10 years ago. Regardless of how you look at it, or how you see it, it is truly a privilege to be on a public sidewalk. It is not a right. So … we are trying to look at public spaces and figure out how there can be ease of access and ability [for pedestrians] to pass on the sidewalk.”
Pedestrian safety and traffic issues brought to the city’s attention in mid-May spurred a June 1 proposal to revise the Private Use of Public Spaces handbook. The proposed change initially would have banned outdoor dining for establishments that make less than 30 percent of their revenue from food. Protests ensued from owners of several downtown pubs — many of whom felt the changes were sprung on them with little notice.
“The biggest problem we have is that they didn’t consult the business owners with the initial draft of this ordinance, which didn’t make sense because we’re the ones that understand what’s going on out there every night,” said Zack Medford, owner of Fayetteville Street’s Paddy O’Beers.
Medford, who said his pub depends on outdoor seating to draw a crowd, immediately teamed up with other bar owners to call for clear communication between local businesses and city staffers.
The result was a plan for a hospitality committee to help all downtown restaurants and bars comply with the existing PUPS handbook, and to discuss revisions that satisfy everyone involved, said David, who argued at a recent Law and Public Safety Committee hearing that the city’s zoning enforcement was too lax.
“Many of the things we currently have on the books are very hard to enforce,” David told the hospitality committee. “The zoning staff goes home at 5:30 in the afternoon, so we don’t have nighttime enforcement as far as zoning is concerned at this point. We take responsibility, and we’re going to fix it. But that goes two ways.”
Mutual enforcement should be straightforward, said David, suggesting that restaurant and bar owners take pictures of their outdoor seating areas and email them to city staffers for compliance purposes.
Additionally, the city is looking to expand its zoning enforcement team — though the current budget doesn’t provide enough funding, David said. Raleigh’s Police Department will boost PUPS rule enforcement until the city is able to hire more staffers, she added.
“There’s no need to put or place blame anywhere,” David said. “We have happened upon the issues. Now we need to fix the issues. Owning our part and stepping up enforcement is the first step in which we as interim staff can address those issues. I’m just going to … ask that [restaurant owners] do the same.”
Restaurants and bars can help manage sidewalk traffic by placing stanchions around all sidewalk-dining areas prior to Raleigh’s crowded July 4 celebration, David said.
In the meantime, actual revisions to PUPS rules remain under discussion, but are no longer limited to the original option that would ban patio privileges for drinking establishments.
Two additional options being discussed would allow bars and private clubs to keep outdoor seating permits so long as they maintained limits such as providing sidewalk clearance for pedestrians, separating their patrons from the public, and limiting how many people dined or drank outdoors. Both alternatives are preferable to bar owners like Medford, who says the city is moving in the right direction by discussing alternatives with local businesses.
“It’s tough when you have a full room and everyone has a different perspective,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m not optimistic. I think it shows that the city is listening to us now, and that’s the most important thing.”
The city council will vote during the first week of August on changes to the PUPS handbook, David said.
Kari Travis (@karilynntravis) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.