Friday, Aug. 14, marked the first night of Raleigh's new sidewalk-permit restrictions. This was, you'll recall, an effort to bring to heel the noise and litter and general bacchanal that some downtown residents (including and especially Empire Properties founder Greg Hatem) have been complaining about over the last year or so.
These rules—the most contentious were the 1 a.m. weekend shutdown and the 15-square-feet-per-person occupancy limit—were codified in a 5–3 City Council vote earlier this month.
Council framed the first three months as a trial period, after which—and after the October elections—the city would reevaluate.
But having spilled considerable ink on this subject over the last several months, I wasn't content to wait until November to see how things shake out. I wanted to know if the new rules would really do anything to curb noise or congestion or much of anything at all. And the only way to do that was to be on the ground.
So I spent the Friday night wandering downtown's streets with Zack Medford and a few other bar owners and stakeholders. Below is the play-by-play. Draw your own conclusions about whether this ordinance is worth it.
10:41 p.m.: Even though it's move-in weekend at N.C. State, it's easy to score street parking, easier than it probably should be on a Friday night in a thriving downtown. The only obnoxious noise I hear is the radio blaring from a passing pedicab.
10:45: I turn down Fayetteville Street and find myself at Paddy O'Beers, a bottle shop whose business model is built around sidewalk drinking. There are a ton of cops out, walking up and down downtown's main drag, snapping photos of the crowds on an iPhone.
"Is this a crime scene?" someone asks an officer.
10:49: Robert Weltzin, the chiropractor once again challenging Mayor Nancy McFarlane, is on the patio with his wife, Joelle. They sip dark beer out of small, clear plastic cups. When he was 18, he tells me, he sneaked into the Soviet Union, where security forces were omnipresent. "This isn't like that," he's careful to point out, but "just the police presence we have right now, it's overkill."
I see three officers approach Zack Medford, the Paddy co-owner who is outside his own bar registering patrons to vote against the council members, including McFarlane, who voted in favor of the rules.
10:56: Medford is still talking to the cops. He's given some paperwork, then walks over to me. "We have speculation," he says, "that ABC didn't like this"—he's pointing to his patio's split layout, two groupings of picnic tables with a walkway in between. "I think the city kicked the dog too much and ABC woke up and said none of it's legal." He'd received a warning citation and been told that after tonight he could no longer place tables and chairs in front of the adjacent EyeCareCenter building.
Medford tells me he's heard rumors that at 1 a.m. there will be a mass walkout at Raleigh Times, owned by Greg Hatem, whose quest for peace and quiet has made him a focal point of bar owners' enmity. Or maybe there will be some sort of impromptu protest parade down Fayetteville.
11:04: Medford returns to the evening's task of trying to register people to vote. A trolley pub, with hollering revelers and piercing music, passes by. I ask Weltzin, "If you're mayor, will you promise to get rid of those things?" He laughs.
11:13: "You wanna walk down Fayetteville?" Medford asks. Sure, I respond, and off we go, Medford pausing every few minutes to ask passersby if they're registered to vote. Most of them don't know there's an election around the corner.
11:15: "I ran for City Council when I was 20," Medford tells me. "Did you know that?" I did not. But it's true: While at N.C. State in 2003, Medford ran against victor Thomas Crowder and incumbent Benson Kirkman in District D, and says he picked up nearly 1,000 votes. Fun fact: In its endorsements that year, the INDY wrote, "Zach [sic] Medford, a 20-year-old N.C. State University student, has more confidence in himself than his knowledge of the issues warrants," a judgment that might have carried more weight had we spelled his name correctly.
11:19: There is a commotion and a weird cluster of lights down Fayetteville, near a Subway. It's a wedding party from the adjacent (and Hatem-owned) Stockroom at 230. There are people clad in dresses and suits with loosened ties drinking from Budweiser bottles on the sidewalk. The cops don't seem to care.
11:23: There's no patio outside of Coglin's anymore. Medford shut that down when the ordinance kicked in. There's still a line at the door, still people smoking outside, still a band playing very loud Bon Jovi covers inside The Big Easy a few doors down.
11:37: We walk past Bittersweet, which only has four people on its sidewalk.
11:39: There's a crowd of about 50 on BusyBee Café's rooftop patio, which is as pleasant a place to grab a beer on a brisk midsummer night as any, even if your view is of the Moore Square parking deck. Because this is private property, the ordinance doesn't apply. The hum of conversation doesn't care.
11:46: No more wedding party in front of the Stockroom. The roped-off area in front of The Big Easy, however, is jam-packed, and there are lots of people milling about the sidewalk outside of those stanchions.
11:50: Anchor Bar has a dozen people outside in its cordoned-off patio. Medford starts his voter-registration thing. A man in a suit, no tie, says, "I have no problem with police. But this is ridiculous." Another man walks by, explaining to his friend, "It's all because some doctor complained ...." Matt Kenner, Anchor's owner, tells us they were given a warning for not having a placard announcing occupancy limits.
11:55: "You wanna go to the rooftop bar?" Medford asks. We're outside Raleigh Times on Hargett. We walk in, then Medford pauses. He's wearing his blue #savethepatios T-shirt. That may cause some friction with Hatem's staff, he reasons. "I'm not gonna do that. It's a bad idea."
11:57: We run into Ken Yowell, owner of Calavera and Oak City Meatball Company, at Hargett and Wilmington. His establishments are down 14 and 18 percent from last Friday night, he says, just as he'd predicted to Council.
12 a.m.: "It's been a good night to register people to vote," Medford tells me. "I've got 12 already."
12:05: The three of us head to Landmark, another establishment unaffected by the ordinance. Medford insists on buying me a beer. We head to the crowded outdoor patio and squeeze into a table in the corner. Yowell alternates between his beer and a tequila shot. "We have to get rid of $700 worth of tables," he says, "and replace them with $900 worth of four-tops."
12:26: Shop Local Raleigh executive director Jen Martin joins us. She seems genuinely distressed by the state of things. (The next day she texted me: "To me, it was sad. Sad to see what's going on & how it's literally dividing a community.") A fire official, she says, said bars don't have to count lines toward their occupancy limits.
12:35: We walk back down Hargett. Raleigh Times looks half-empty, at least compared to its normal weekend crowd. You have to wonder if the backlash isn't taking a toll.
12:43: Back outside Paddy O'Beers, a waitress is trying to explain to patio drinkers that they're going to have to go back inside in a few minutes. "Fuck Greg Hatem!" a young woman yells.
"Yeah, fuck that guy!" echoes a man.
"Who's Greg Hatem?" asks a third.
12:46: Yowell receives a text message from a manager at Calavera. Sales are down 15 percent from last week. Meanwhile, his new Calavera in Carrboro is up 74 percent.
12:50: As the four of us walk south on Fayetteville, a man hands me a black card informing me, helpfully, that "The statistics say that 10 out of 10 people die" and so I should give my heart to Jesus.
12:56: The Big Easy has taken down its stanchions. Medford learns that Coglin's received a warning about its occupancy limits. Yowell says that, when told they'd have to move inside, each of the 13 people on the Calavera sidewalk had cashed out and left.
12:58: "Quiet? Is it quiet now?" Medford asks. It's not.
1:01: "It's much quieter," Medford says. He laughs. Music is still blasting from Coglin's, and there are still lots of people sprawling all over the Fayetteville Street sidewalk, only not drinking and not roped off.
1:02: Still loud.
1:03: Steve Hunt, owner of The Big Easy, says he stopped people from going outside at 12:30. At 12:45, he took the stanchions down. The cops had given him a warning for not having a sign saying "No alcohol past this point."
1:09: Two drunk bros outside The Big Easy are about to fight. "Are you fucking retarded?" one yells. "Are you fucking retarded?" Apparently the other guy had grabbed a woman's ass. A young woman in the group plays peacemaker.
1:15: Will Gibbs, a bartender at Coglin's, tells me there are more people on the sidewalk right now than were there at this time a week ago. "Actually, there are way more people outside," Medford adds. "I will say there are less door guys."
1:27: Gibbs says Coglin's numbers were down 30 percent, even though they were at capacity all night. The loss of the patio was a legitimate hit. "A bartender is losing a shift on Friday and Saturday night," he tells me. Yowell says that, because of the new restrictions, he's not going to fill a $40,000-a-year manager opening.
1:35: There are still 50 people outside The Big Easy. They're not drinking, but they are talking, sometimes loudly. Yowell wants another beer and a shot, so he, Medford and I walk down to the new Ruby Deluxe. Medford gets a text message from one of his Coglin's employees. It reads as follows: "Some older lady came up to me out on the sidewalk and told me to tell you and Dan [Lovenheim, presumably] you're fucking ass holes, shes lived down town for ever, it's your fault all these down town businesses are going through this shit, you guys are backed by the mob and she's gonna bring you down!"
1:41: Inside Ruby Deluxe, I order a PBR. Medford offers a toast. "To the end of downtown. To the beginning of the crumble."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Are we livable yet?"