Outdoor Seating Ordinance Changes Being Discussed

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If the video doesn’t show for you, watch it here.

I’m into this outdoor seating “controversy” and wanted to get some ideas and thoughts out there on the blog.

First, let’s start with some history. If you recall, our downtown’s vibrancy was questioned during a Raleigh City Council meeting in January 2015. Developer Greg Hatem introduced the concerns (watch it in the previous link) and was quoted as saying that downtown Raleigh was “unlivable.” During that discussion, it was mentioned that a group was doing some independent thinking on this and wanted to work with the city to address it. In Hatem’s opinion, noise and disorderly behavior on Fayetteville Street was one of the reasons holding back downtown’s vibrancy.

Now, all of a sudden this is on the consent agenda for the June 2, 2015 council meeting.

3.1 Private Use of Public Spaces Ordinance Update
Marchell Adams-David, City Manager’s Office
Recent discussions of vibrancy within downtown Raleigh and the Fayetteville Street District have revealed a number of issues that need to be addressed. One prevalent issue is the need to re-define Outdoor Dining as currently addressed in the City code. Staff is currently revising the existing Standards for Private Use of Public Spaces (PUPS), originally authorized in 2007. The original intent of an Outdoor Dining Permit was for PUPS areas to be utilized for dining; since that time a number of Outdoor Dining permits have been issued to businesses and private clubs where no associated dining activity occurs.

Revisions to the current Outdoor Dining ordinance include additional clarity, strengthening of enforcement and a means to resolve administration of the ordinance. The two Outdoor Dining ordinances, Sections 9-7007 and 12-2121 of the City code, require a text change for the purpose of revision and modernization.

Recommendation: Authorize a public hearing for June 16, 2015.

Watch the video, it’s short, as City Manager Ruffin Hall explains the ordinance and who it affects. The council did not vote on this and instead moved it to the Law and Public Safety Committee and it’ll be discussed at their June 9 meeting.

The bar owners have definitely come out against this with some that are not affected showing opposition as well. The claim is that the bars spend thousands of dollars on policing and managing their patrons while on the public sidewalks so to not allow it, the city then has to police it. Could there be a liability issue here too? Some think so.

The supporters of this ordinance update argue that the noise levels on Fayetteville Street are already too high and with over 5 new outdoor amplified noise permits recently submitted for Fayetteville Street, the levels will increase. This is a detractor from a vibrant downtown.

I’ve thought about this for a bit and think I’ve formed my opinion on the matter. Like most controversies, both sides may be at an extreme where a compromise should satisfy everyone. Someone shared a photo with me on Twitter that helps the discussion.

That is what a typical Friday or Saturday night looks like in front of a handful of businesses on Fayetteville Street. It’s alive. It’s buzzing. There are people everywhere.

It’s also a side effect of those very large sidewalks we built on “North Carolina’s Main Street.”

Many would agree that having a drink outside is fantastic. I LOVE sitting outside with a beverage. It could be a pint of beer, glass of wine, can of soda, glass of water, it doesn’t matter. Still tastes better outside in my opinion. So remember that drinking outside is fantastic and clearly that is helping businesses thrive on Fayetteville Street.

However, because of our huge sidewalks here and the lack of defined spaces for the public versus a business, the dominant force takes over. The bar patrons are taking over the sidewalks and not allowing the sidewalk to function like a transportation network. You can’t easily walk up and down Fayetteville Street. Forget it when it comes to those in a wheelchair.

I’m not calling anyone out but some do it better than others.

So what’s the middle ground? To disallow businesses from having outdoor seating because they do not serve food shows a lack of understanding of the issue and a failure to work with those owners on an improved solution that benefits everyone. I’d like to think that a vibrant community is one where visitors can flow from place to place with ease.

If you look at the photo embedded above, the problem is the “massing” of people standing outside a bar/restaurant from the front door all the way to the curb. Is this not a safety hazard? How does someone walk through that, especially someone in a wheelchair? What if an emergency happens, won’t this slow down the emergency folks that respond?

A good conversation with bar owners could be around this topic. How can the city and owners create a process to allow a more defined sidewalk seating/entertaining area? The sidewalk must function as transportation just like the street must be clear so vehicles can get through.

We should up our outdoor seating game and let owners set up decorative ropes, umbrellas, awnings, etc. in order to define a space that says, “in this area, you are outside for this bar/restaurant.” That also sends the message that, “being outside of that area, you are not a part of this bar/restaurant, keep moving.”

That’s a much better look than the borderline chaos we have going on with these droves of people congregating outside bars.

The other side of it is enforcement and I expect that to be a big discussion at the committee meeting next week.

Wrapping up, my thinking so far is that defining our public spaces so that there is balance between moving pedestrians (transit network) and outdoor entertainment (drinking. outside. Fantastic!) would benefit everyone without further limitations that the city has to work hard to enforce.

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  1. I wonder if some delineation could be marked on sidewalks. Showing “this is a traffic area” and “this isnt'”. And make the marking some sort of mural/public art project. Beautification and traffic management.

  2. Agree. It’s not about whether the venue serves food versus drinks. That has nothing to do with it. (Afterall, Raleigh Times serves food and they block the sidewalk way more than Foundation ever does!). It’s all about making sure the businesses leave a clear, unimpeded walking path on the bulk of the sidewalk. That’s it. If they can do that, then who cares WHAT they serve?

  3. I think you’ve done a pretty good job framing the larger issue here, but I think many are getting a little lost on what the proposed changes actually do. My understanding is that the proposed changes only effect establishments that don’t serve the required amount of food to be a “food establishment” and have an outdoor area on public sidewalks. It makes the current ordinance more clear in that the original intent was for bars to not have these same privileges. For whatever reason though, some non-food establishments were issued these permits anyway. The change would negate those and specifically disallow issuing permits to “bars” in the future. What I don’t get though, is how this ordinance is supposed to deal with the issues you’ve stated (which I agree with) and isn’t just an attack on the few (5? 6?) businesses that were issued permits incorrectly. Yes, sidewalk traffic gets crazy, and boisterousness gets out of hand, but that’s not a problem solely of those 5 or 6 places. If the city really wants to address this issue, more discussion is warranted.

  4. They tried to widen the sidewalks to have a more friendly environment and provide outside seating. The bars are having 50 people in a roped off section not sitting but standing & drinking in the public right of way. The other item not mentioned is the liability since if the bar is serving drinks and something happens in the right of way owned by the city not the bar/restaurant who is liable? especially if the city issued a permit (permission) to take over the sidewalk.

  5. Leo:

    Thanks for your well-reasoned assessment. I’m a big fan of outdoor seating areas from a complete streets standpoint(and, um, I’ve been known to patronize more than a few of these specifically). I’m confident we can work through these issues and come up with solutions that work for everyone.

  6. I don’t understand why the city can’t simply fine the establishments that ARE using up more sidewalk space than permitted. Foundation doesn’t use up even HALF the space that the Raleigh Times does. Even if the ordinance came into effect, it wouldn’t solve any of the issues it’s purported to solve.

  7. Frankly, all that the city needs is a code compliance officer to ticket/fine establishments that violate the terms of their sidewalk agreements with the city. If the city is not already doing so, it should be charing businesses fees per square foot to expand their private businesses on public property. These fees will pay for the compliance officer.
    Something not mentioned yet but the sidewalk use is exacerbated by the indoor smoking bans. People have to go outside to smoke and there are plenty of social smokers who only smoke when they drink. Mind you, I LOVE the indoor smoking ban so I am not suggesting that it goes away but rather just pointing out another issue in parallel.

  8. Leo, great post. I think any business should be allowed to have outdoor seating, whether they serve food or not. I think a semi-permanent (like the ropes) structure needs to be used, giving us a defined space to walk.In Chicago all the outdoor seating areas seemed to have fences, as seems to also be the case in Asheville. They seem to work pretty well at addressing this kind of thing. Making them temporary might allow the sidewalk to be more open at certain times if that’s needed.

    As you say, this isn’t an all or nothing issue. And really, the number of places wanting outdoor seating is only going to increase as the DT population increases. It’s something we need to get right because it’s not going away as long as downtown is an attractive place to go at night.

    As far as downtown ‘vibrancy’ goes, I’ve always thought that argument was a bunch of malarky. Go to Piccadilly Circus, or Times Square, or any other major entertainment/gathering place at night and it’s going to be loud, chaotic, and the next morning it’s going to be trashed. That’s part of living in a city. FS isn’t a quiet residential area, and it shouldn’t be treated that way.

    John, you make a good point. When I lived in Finland they had special indoor smoking rooms in every bar, people weren’t allowed to bring their drinks in (to prevent them from congregating after their cigarettes) but they had separate ventilation systems and allowed people to smoke without affecting other patrons. I’ve never understood why we don’t adopt this kind of thing here. At some point in the future I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a sidewalk smoking ban, so smoking rooms might be inevitable anyway.

  9. @Steve. I’ve been to Finland three times and I am not sure that smoking rooms are necessary in a place like Finland that stays cold for months on end. Plus, I’m not so sure that I even want to hang around smokers who are stuck in a room with other smokers; their clothes will surely reek of smoke much worse than if they are stepping outside in the fresh air when they light up.

    Miami Beach does an excellent job managing this issue and they do so without the use of ropes. Businesses are accountable for maintaining their outdoor use corridors for passers by and compliance offers make sure of it. Businesses may use planters to delineate their outdoor space from a customer experience perspective but not because it’s required by the city.

    I’m in full agreement that street life is essential to creating a vibrant city. Methinks that Hatem is just being a hater when it comes to his complaining. It’s like he doesn’t want competition and I can’t help but wonder how many ears he’s bending on a daily basis to plant seeds to his own ends.

  10. Apologies all. I messed up what I was trying to say about Finland. I meant to say that it makes sense in a place like Finland to have smoking rooms because it stays cold for months on end.

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