A debate about the difference between picnic tables and “communal seating” dominated two hours of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting of the Outdoor Seating Design Review Committee, a part of the Raleigh City Appearance Commission.
The committee, which has been assigned by the Raleigh City Council to look at design rules for restaurants and bars with sidewalk dining areas, finally concluded that picnic tables should be banned from Fayetteville Street, with the understanding that they will be allowed in other parts of the city.
“I’m not trying to be disparaging to business owners, because they’re just trying to figure out what’s required,” said Bryan O’Haver, the committee’s chairman. “One of the issues — and I hope we haven’t been tiptoeing around it for the last six weeks —are the picnic tables. And I think what we’re trying to do is to be flexible.”
All bar owners in attendance readily conceded the use of picnic tables along the city’s main street, suggesting instead that “communal tables” with detached benches would be a better option. Restaurants like Blount Street’s Calavera Empanadas and Tequila wouldn’t be required to remove their brilliant red picnic tables, though owner Ken Yowell said he would give up the tables if required to do so.
At the heart of the issue, some committee members pointed out, is the fact that Fayetteville Street’s varied atmosphere makes it difficult to regulate furniture and setting for all establishments with outdoor dining.
“I’m still struggling with ‘what is the architectural character of Fayetteville Street?’” asked committee member Asa Fleming. “I mean, what is it? That, to me, is the real question.”
Each block of the corridor displays a different characteristic of the city, making it crucial to provide some room for regulatory interpretation, said O’Haver.
“Staff has worked really, really hard over a two- or three-week period to bring us examples of other codes from cities in North Carolina, from cities in [other] states, from international cities, similar sized cities, [and] larger cities,” O’Haver said. “None of them has a big thick code that overcomplicates the situation. So are we that unique?”
The committee will reconvene next week to discuss the scale of an establishment’s furniture compared with its total outdoor dining space. Members also will make a final review of their recommendations for signage, stanchions, and overall furniture appearance.
The seven-week-long discussion about how to regulate Raleigh’s outdoor dining “look” stems from an almost yearlong controversy regarding proper use of public sidewalks for patio dining.
Conflict arose during May of last year when complaints about overcrowding, noise, and vibrancy along the Fayetteville Street corridor spurred the city council to take action. Initial recommendations involved stripping patio privileges from bars and private clubs alone. Bar owners protested, and the city responded by proposing an alternate “pilot program” to place curfews and capacity limits on outdoor dining for both restaurants and bars.
That three-month program underwent review by the city council late last year, making way for further discussion about the appearance of sidewalk furniture and stanchions. Members of the council moved that debate to the appearance commission for a six-week study and work session.
Next week marks the eighth meeting of the design committee — an effort to wrap up loose ends on the proposal.
All recommendations from the appearance commission remain subject to change by the city council, which next month is expected to review the proposal.