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Thursday, July 30, 2015

5 Takeaways from Raleigh’s Outdoor Drinking Debate

Posted by on Thu, Jul 30, 2015 at 2:18 PM

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On Tuesday, as Jane Porter ably reported via live blog, the Raleigh City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee (from here on out, LPS) took up the Private Use of Public Spaces ordinance, an issue we’ve written about on several occasions now. LPS did more or less what was expected: It adopted most of the noncontroversial points the city’s Hospitality Committee—a group of downtown stakeholders the city convened when this issue first hit the fan in early June—agreed upon during its last meeting, held last Thursday. On the two most controversial items—a) when the patios would have to close and b) how many people could occupy them at any given time—LPS didn’t give bar owners exactly what they wanted. While the Hospitality Committee agreed on a midnight closing time Sunday–Thursday, it split between midnight and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. LPS, in turn, split the difference, settling at 1 a.m. on weekends.

More important, as I’ll discuss later, LPS also sided with staff over the bar owners in recommending limiting occupancy on sidewalk patios to 15 square feet per person, deciding against the bars’ preference to have an option for standing-room-only crowds (per the state building code, five square feet per person). As assistant city attorney Nicolette Fulton told LPS, staff couldn’t find any other city that allowed SRO sidewalk patios. The building code, meanwhile, mandates 15 feet if there are fixed tables and chairs. 

LPS’s recommendation goes before the City Council next Tuesday, Aug. 4, and because all of the sidewalk permits officially end on Aug. 1, the Council basically has to make a decision that day. Already, bar supporters have told me that they’re going to pack Council chambers with aggrieved patrons and business owners and service workers and generate some 300 emails (or more) to council members between now and then. And you can be sure that the downtown residents, who’ve long been pushing for more restrictions on nightlife, will be there, too. 

We’ll have more on this story as it heads toward a climax next week. In the meantime, however, here are five takeaways from the debate over Raleigh’s still-evolving PUPS ordinance: 


1) This is a victory for the downtown bars (sorta).


It is not, to be sure, a complete victory. For most of the downtown bars, a majority of their weekend business comes toward the tail end of the night, and any hour they lose is a legitimate pain point. Same goes for the occupancy restrictions, which will curtail the business of at least several downtown bars in a significant way (see below). But if you look at where this process started—back at the end of May, when city staff, siding with certain Fayetteville Street residents, wanted to eliminate sidewalk permits for non-restaurants altogether and maybe close all sidewalk patios by 11 p.m.—there’s no way to not see this as a win for the bar crowd. And I suspect that, privately, they know that. 

That said, there is one way to not see it as a win: This perspective is only correct if you use staff’s initial proposal as a baseline—not the status quo, where they can (in most instances) cram lots more people onto patios until 2:30 a.m. seven nights a week. So it’s a matter of perspective. But for the bars, it could have been much worse. 

2) The 15-person rule will hurt more than the 1 a.m. closing.


After the final Hospitality Committee meeting last Thursday, Zack Medford—the co-owner of Paddy O’Beers, Common 414 and Coglin’s—told me that at his establishments, he does 90 percent of his weekend business between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. So the midnight restriction that was being proposed as of last week would cost him two-thirds of that business. The 1 a.m. compromise is better, of course, but not ideal, he said. 

Add to it that, at actual restaurants that serve food outside, the 1 a.m. cutoff—meaning, there can be no one on the patios at 1:01, lest they run afoul of the law, and the new ordinance jacks up the cost of noncompliance—means they can no longer serve meals after, say, 12:15, maybe earlier. And add to that all of the servers whose livelihoods depend on tips they earn in those wee hours of weekend nights, one of whom spoke before LPS Tuesday. For her, 1 a.m. is going to sting.

The occupancy limit will sting more (at least for some bars). Here’s why: 

click to enlarge Occupancy restrictions on downtown bars with sidewalk patios. - CITY OF RALEIGH
  • City of Raleigh
  • Occupancy restrictions on downtown bars with sidewalk patios.

There are two operative columns in that graphic: The grayish column on the left, which shows you the current occupancy limits for bars downtown based on their existing permits, and the one smack in the middle, labeled “Occupancy @15 SF/person,” which will be the new standard if this is approved.

There you’ll see the impact for bars like Bittersweet, a dessert-and-cocktail spot on Martin. It will only be allowed three people outside, which will surely not justify the expense of having a manager on duty to ensure compliance after 10 p.m. (which, by the way, the new ordinance requires). And what of Medford’s Paddy O’Beers, which, under its current permit, can have 72 people outside but under the new one will only be allowed 25? Or Calavera on Blount, whose occupancy will go from 48 to 17?  

To be sure, many bars/restaurants, particularly the ones that didn’t max out on their current requests, will stand pat or even tick up in occupancy under the new system (Clyde Cooper’s BBQ, for instance, jumps from 20 to 21 people). But for most, this will be a sizable reduction—and not just late on weekend nights, when the outdoor crowds most annoy downtown residents, but on weekday nights and weekend days as well. 

Another thing worth noting: Even though all the talk has been about downtown, PUPS is not limited to the Central Business District. It is citywide—Glenwood, near N.C. State, in Five Points, everywhere. 

3) Downtown residents aren’t just killjoy cranks.


Bar owners have been quick, probably too quick, to dismiss residents’ complaints as those of old farts out to ruin everyone’s good time. There’s been significant opprobrium directed in particular toward Greg Hatem, whose Raleigh Times was subject to a retaliatory boycott campaign in early June. Take, for instance, this meme a reader posted on the INDY’s Facebook page:

click to enlarge hatem.jpg

It is true, undeniably so, that the original PUPS proposal—apparently first floated in April by the Livable Streets Subcommittee of the Fayetteville Street District, which Hatem co-chairs—would have damaged some of Hatem’s competitors far more than it would have Raleigh Times, which serves food and therefore would have remained eligible for sidewalk permits. 

But to assume that Hatem’s motivations are purely self-interested misses the point. He invested a lot, both money and effort, into revitalizing downtown when almost nobody was doing so; no one disputes that. He also sees downtown as becoming increasingly “unlivable”—that is, too much frat house and not enough neighborhood. Hatem’s colleague at Empire, Andrew Stewart, served on the Hospitality Committee, and while he certainly lobbied for a tamer—or at least quieter—downtown, he didn’t show any enmity toward his competitors, no drive to run them out of business for the sake of Empire’s bottom line. 

Hatem and Stewart, and for that matter the other residents who have spoken up, have been painted as representatives of a small but vocal minority, the proverbial squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I can’t speak to the breadth of their support, to whether these complainers in fact represent a larger population of downtown condo-dwellers at PNC and Sir Walter.

I suspect they might, however—even though, as came out in the LPS committee Tuesday, a majority of the complaints about downtown bars came from only five people. (I have a records request in for those complaints, but it has not yet been fulfilled.) A petition in favor of an outdoor-amplified-noise ordinance garnered lots of downtowner support, and I’m fairly certain the Venn diagram of those who supported that and those who support a more restrictive PUPS is basically one perfect circle. 

Even if that’s not the case, even if the complainers are but a handful of whiny old people and self-interested developers, that alone doesn’t obviate their concerns. For starters, not being able to sleep does have detrimental health impacts. It does negatively affect quality of life. That’s not an inconsequential thing. And, truth be told, if I dropped several hundred grand on a 25th-floor condo, especially if I did so before the most recent housing boom, back when the city was practically begging people to move downtown, I wouldn’t want to walk outside to see some bro pissing in an alley, either. 

The reality is, people work downtown. People play downtown. (People don’t necessarily shop downtown, but we’re working on that.) But if people don’t want to live downtown, that three-legged stool that urban planners always talk about won’t stand up. Downtown won’t thrive as a strictly nightlife district. If people who moved into downtown aren’t comfortable living downtown, they’ll move. 

On the other hand, these are people who chose to move downtown because there are nearby shops and restaurants. And those nearby shops and restaurants have sidewalk patios because the city encouraged them to do so over the last decade, to give downtown a sense of vibrancy where, quite frankly, none existed. And now that the bars and restaurants are successful, now that downtown is a thing, the city wants to rein them in at the behest of the condo-dwellers.

So yeah, I can see why the bar owners aren’t happy. In the end, though, this is a fine line that cities—not just here, but everywhere—have to toe, and there’s no handbook for how to do it. Still, these aren’t illegitimate concerns, and they shouldn’t be summarily shrugged aside. 

However … 

4) This won’t solve the problem.


At least not completely. 

Downtown residents’ foremost complaint is noise, especially noise late at night, when they want to go to bed. And as Andrew Stewart and some city staff members mentioned repeatedly throughout the Hospitality Committee meetings, Chicago shuts down its patios at midnight every night of the week, and few if any other downtowns allow standing-room-only crowds outside until closing time, precisely because having too many people too late into the night creates too much noise, and the people who’ve spent good money to live downtown don’t want to put up with that shit. 

But PUPS isn’t really supposed to be dealing with noise but rather things like sidewalk clearances and occupancy limits. The city already has noise rules on its books. By everyone’s admission, those rules have not been effectively enforced. To compound that problem, the city has, as has been pointed out before, only one person tasked with making sure that establishments with outdoor permits comply with city code, and that person only works bankers’ hours.

In addition, as bar owners have pointed out, when bars have to shut down their sidewalks, people will still go outside to smoke, to make a phone call, to talk to a friend away from the noise of the club, to try to hook up, whatever. And the bars will have no way to regulate that, and no obligation to do so. People will still be loud. Clubs will still play loud music. Residents will still have trouble falling asleep. 

True, closing down sidewalk patios might mitigate some noise, but if the rules already on the books haven’t been enforced, what’s the point in piling on new ones? Or rather, why not enforce the current rules and see if they work before doing something that will unavoidably hinder one of a still-nascent downtown’s strongest economic segments? 

5) This issue is important.


This morning, the N&O (unsurprisingly) came out with a short editorial supporting the 1 a.m. rollback, for some of the reasons I mentioned above: 

It is quite true that a vibrant downtown nightlife is good for the city of Raleigh. But there is a point when the excitement generated by those downtown bars has to be balanced against the other sea change in recent years downtown: the increased numbers of people living in the city’s core. […] 

Bars may lose some late-night sales, but city life will gain a better balance.

Balance, as I’ve mentioned above, is indeed important. But I think there’s a bigger picture here—more than just how raucous downtown will be. 

When PUPS first came before LPS, Councilor Wayne Maiorano noted—quite astutely—that underlying all of this is really what he called a vision question: What kind of downtown, what kind of city, do we want to be? 

Or, put another way: What makes cities vibrant? What does that even mean?

Is it a thriving nightclub scene? Beard-Award-winning restaurants? Mixed-use towers of condos or apartments reaching far into the sky? A quaint historicity? Fortune 500 headquarters? An arts district? A gayborhood? Quirky, eclectic, affordable inner-core neighborhoods? A downtown that feels like a neighborhood, safe and clean, with a nearby grocery store? A mass transit system that isn’t a pointless clusterfuck? 

The answer, most urban planners would say, is all of the above.

The conversation Raleigh needs to have with itself is how. 

If anything, I think PUPS, piggybacking off the debate earlier this year over outdoor amplified noise permits, has nudged us toward that conversation, although not always productively. Downtown won’t be successful if guys like Medford can’t make it. But it also won’t be successful if the folks in PNC feel compelled to move or if retail can’t gain traction. 

All of which is to say, I’m not sure the LPS’ recommendation, the one going to Council next Tuesday, would be catastrophic if implemented. But at the same time, I doubt it would have the results its proponents or city staffers hope. And I suspect the tradeoff may not be ultimately worthwhile—especially coupled with the parking-garage fees the city plans to put in place at year’s end, which will also adversely impact many of these same bars and restaurants.

More effective, it seems to me—and this was an idea that was kicked around at the last Hospitality Committee meeting, but was rejected by city staff as too complicated—would be to link occupancy and time. In other words, if you want more people on your patio, you have to shut down your patio earlier. If you want to stay open later, you’ll have stricter occupancy rules. That way, bars would get to decide which works for them, while inching toward the residents’ goal of having fewer people reveling outside late at night. And the city could also link that sidewalk-patio square footage to the annual permit fee so that larger sidewalk patios pay more toward enforcement than smaller ones, rather than a flat fee all around, and the city gets the funds needed to keep the more troublesome bars in check. 

It is an imperfect solution, granted. Right now, they all are. 

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