News: CJ Exclusives

Raleigh puts new limits on outdoor seating, surprising business owners

Council said changes didn't require public hearing and focused mainly on making sidewalks friendlier to disabled visitors and residents

Picnic tables like these at Calavera Empenadas and Tequila Bar in downtown Raleigh were outlawed in 2016 because the benches are attached. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
Picnic tables like these at Calavera Empenadas and Tequila Bar in downtown Raleigh were outlawed in 2016 because the benches are attached. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

The Raleigh City Council once again has changed the rules of outdoor seating for downtown diners, but some business owners say they were never consulted before the changes were made.

On May 1, the City Council unanimously — with the exception of Dickie Thompson who was absent — approved changes to the outdoor dining ordinance for downtown establishments.

The new requirements ban outdoor seating which creates a meandering path. Instead, there must be a straight, clear path on the sidewalk for pedestrians, with medallions marking off dining areas.

Other changes distinguish whether outdoor seating is allowed along the curb or by the edge of a building, depending on the width of the sidewalk. While the previous ordinance required a seating buffer of five feet from a tree, the revised ordinance only requires outdoor seating to be at least two feet from a tree grate.

These changes arrived as restaurant and bar owners were set to renew their outdoor seating permits. A few will have to rethink their plans with new rules in order. Many felt blindsided by the quick process and the lack of public input sought by city officials.

Zack Medford, who owns downtown establishments including Isaac Hunter’s Tavern and Paddy O’Beers, said he was surprised by the changes.

“We didn’t hear anything about it,” Medford said. “I’m running a business. I don’t have time to read every single set of minutes that they put out for City Council meetings and work sessions.”

Travis Crane, assistant planning director with the Department of City Planning, said four out of the 29 establishments that have applied for a permit renewal will lose seats. Sitti will go from 11 to eight seats, Treats will go from eight to seven, and Woody’s will go from 18 to 16 seats.

Crane said Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, which will go from 21 to 10 seats, voluntarily reduced its seating beyond the requirement.

Joseph Hatch, the owner of Woody’s at City Market, posted his frustrations on Twitter with the new rules.

“After 16 years one of the most quaint views and all of downtown Raleigh to enjoy a beer and a meal will soon disappear,” Hatch tweeted. “With the new rules essentially any sidewalk that is under 9 ft will not be able to have outdoor seating.”

Regulating outdoor dining was a contentious issue not long ago, with complaints in May 2015 over noise and overcrowding along the Fayetteville Street corridor spurring the City Council to action. The debate, which was often heated, eventually led to a compromise in 2016 and an ordinance outlining rules for outdoor dining.

“It would be nice to sit down with City Council and if they want to have that goal of having things be more accessible, we should all sit down together and work to find solutions,” Medford said. “We spent two years doing that in 2015 and 2016. I guess we just forgot the lessons we learned back then.”

Council member Stef Mendell said the changes shouldn’t have come as a surprise. When the original ordinance went into effect, the council said it would re-evaluate the rules and make adjustments as necessary.

“When this was put into place — which was before I was on the council — there was an understanding that it would be revisited at some point,” Mendell said.

In February, the council asked staff to look into possible changes in the outdoor dining ordinance and return with recommendations in April. Since changes were made to the City Code and not to the Unified Development Ordinance, the planning commission didn’t have to review them and a public hearing wasn’t required.

Council member David Cox didn’t respond to emails requesting comment on the issue, but his tweets said the changes were made to accommodate those with disabilities.

“We changed the rule to provide a straight, clear path on the sidewalk for people like my niece and nephew who use wheelchairs and the disabled that my wife and I volunteer with every month,” Cox tweeted.

Critics say council members should look in the mirror when talking about making the city more accessible for those with disabilities.

“I think it’s kind of funny that they can sit in a building that is as ADA-unfriendly as the City Council Chamber is and create these rules that dictate how small businesses who have invested in our community have to handle this,” Medford said, speaking of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. “I’d love to see the same amount of effort being put into making our city government buildings more accessible.”

Mendell said the city is working to ensure all city buildings comply with the ADA, but that shouldn’t preclude improving access so the disabled can use public sidewalks.

“I’m glad that people are concerned about that,” Mendell said. “I intend to look into it to see what other changes we might be able to make, but even if it turns out we haven’t done a good job in other areas — to me that’s like two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Brent Woodcox, special counsel to Republicans at the General Assembly, took issue with the City Council’s line of argument. He cited a tweet from Mendell which questioned, “why should businesses have the right to take over a public space in order to enrich themselves regardless of the impact on other Raleigh residents?”

“To me that’s just an anti-small business attitude,” Woodcox said. “That’s an anti-entrepreneurial attitude and that’s not the Raleigh we’re trying to build.”

But the biggest issue, according to Woodcox, is with the process itself and how business owners were seemingly left out.

“One thing that government — typically local government — should never do is surprise people,” Woodcox said.

City Council members said there was plenty of engagement with downtown establishments. The staff was told to schedule a meeting with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing downtown. Council member Nicole Stewart is the liaison to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.

“I’ve heard from downtown restaurant owners about their questions and concerns with our new outdoor dining policy,” Stewart said at a July 3 City Council meeting. “After listening, I spoke with staff to ensure that we are doing all we can to work with business owners to ensure we lose as little outdoor dining as possible.”

Stewart declined to comment further on the subject.

Kris Larson, the president and CEO of DRA, said a meeting took place before the May 1 vote on the outdoor seating ordinance. The meeting, which focused on accessibility in public spaces, was with several business owners and the Alliance of Disability Advocates.

“We invited business owners to the table to have this discussion at the request of the city manager, but there wasn’t a direct relationship between this discussion and the ordinance itself,” Larson said.

Larson said he wishes there had been more interactions with business owners to expand accessibility while keeping disruption to downtown establishments at a minimum.

Medford also called for collaboration between City Council and downtown business owners.

“Do we want to have a downtown that works together with its business community or do we want to heave leaders who don’t really know anything about downtown and are just dictating rules from up top?” Medford asked.