There are two ways to look at the short life and quick death of Raleigh's outdoor-drinking crackdown.
The first is that the proposal—which would have blocked sidewalk permits for establishments that don't derive a significant portion of their revenues from food—was hastily drafted by an assistant city attorney at the behest of irate downtown condo-dwellers, without consulting the businesses that would have been most affected. This proposal, a crude and clumsy chainsaw where a scalpel would do, can thus be written off as a bureaucratic misstep that was quickly rectified.
The second possibility is this: While the City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee acceded to public pressure and buried the proposal only 11 days after it was announced, this episode nonetheless hints at how city officials could side in the inevitable conflict between downtown bars and a small but vocal contingent of its well-to-do residents who believe that a thriving nightlife scene has rendered downtown "unlivable," to use Greg Hatem's formulation. (These are some of the same people who, like Hatem, protested the city's amplified noise permits earlier this year.)
But these disgruntled downtowners faced a powerful foe in the bars and their legion of supporters. Zack Medford, owner of Fayetteville Street bars Paddy O'Beers and Coglin's Raleigh, started a Change.org petition that quickly garnered more than 8,000 signatures. Nightlife enthusiasts packed the committee meeting last Tuesday, 60 or 70 strong adorned in blue T-shirts that read "#savethepatios." City officials, meanwhile, were deluged with emails, says Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin, and all but two opposed the proposal.
This tension underscores what Councilor Wayne Maiorano referred to as a vision question: "I think this comes back to what we are trying to create in our downtown," he said during the committee meeting.
Indeed it does. A decade ago, downtown was a wasteland, deserted after sunset, populated primarily by a handful of retirees who appreciated its sleepiness. Then the city reopened Fayetteville Street and built the convention center. Then came the bars—especially after Foundation opened in 2009—followed by the restaurants.
After the recession came the apartments, and they keep coming. Over the next two years, downtown's housing stock will nearly double, with young professionals flooding the high-rise apartments going up all over the urban core (and dropping serious coin to do so).
The city and its downtown boosters, meanwhile, are turning their attention to the soft spots in downtown's portfolio—namely retail, especially the white whale of a grocery store. As downtown shakes off adolescence and embraces young adulthood, the question of what it should look like will only become more pronounced.
This is, in a sense, perfectly natural.
"I've been doing business on Glenwood for 16 years, when there was no Fayetteville Street," Niall Hanley, owner of Hibernian Irish Pub and the forthcoming Raleigh Beer Garden, told the INDY last week, before the committee meeting. "There's been explosive growth. You're gonna have growing pains. Somebody who bought a condo 15 years ago, they were young and single. They're a different person now that they have kids."
They don't want the noise or the congestion or the bacchanal—and the city is listening. "We have been meeting for many months now on issues related to downtown nightlife," says Baldwin. "There are too many people on the street at two in the morning."
In the end, the committee spiked that most controversial provision—the bar/restaurant distinction, which would have most directly impacted six downtown bars with sidewalk permits. It also deferred for 30 days any reforms to the city's outdated outdoor-seating regulations, a quintessentially Raleigh chance for the stakeholders to get together and hash something out.
Regardless, more regulations are coming. The ordinance is still being workshopped, and there are still potential provisions bar owners find distasteful, including a clause that would allow city officials to suspend patio licenses on holidays or during special events.
But Baldwin's committee appeared most focused on ensuring pedestrian right-of-way through the use of setbacks and stanchions, and the bar owners are OK with that. They seem OK, too, with a prohibition on outdoor minibars and cash registers and potential restrictions on how many people could jam into a patio at a time (one person for every 15 square feet of space is likely the city's golden ratio).
Baldwin also brings up the possibility of a registry, like the bars in Glenwood have, a directory that enables people to lodge noise or cleanliness complaints directly to the bar manager.
Another point of emphasis is the city's lackluster enforcement budget. There is only one inspector dedicated to keeping bars in check, and he works bankers' hours. As several bar owners pointed out, if the city can't enforce the rules it now has on the books, what's the point in piling on more rules?
"We have a situation where enforcement has not been keeping up with the activity," Baldwin says. "It's been a squishy kind of policy: We wanted to encourage nightlife, so we haven't enforced the rules and regulations."
Now that downtown's growing up, that's about to change.
Dan Lovenheim—the owner of Capital City Tavern and other bars—who boasts that he has a "Ph.D. in nightlife," is optimistic about how that change will take shape.
"Let's be really clear," he says. "This has nothing to do with noise. It's a few loud, cranky residents." There's no war between businesses and residents, either: "We are the residents you speak of. Everybody who is in power is starting to understand this."
And after the initial snafu, the city immediately corrected course, Lovenheim adds. "Once they were made aware of the fundamental misstep," he says, "they were really quick to come around. At this point, I'm giving everyone a glowing report."