Coloring Outside the Lines: Imagining Fayetteville Street’s Future

Above is a video recording (watch it directly on YouTube) of a virtual meeting hosted by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and Interface Studio where they take attendees through some of the things coming out of the Downtown Raleigh Economic Development Strategy project currently in progress. We’ve mentioned this project earlier in the year and this video is worth watching as it focuses mainly on Fayetteville Street. The team shares ideas that may lead us to new ways to reinvigorate the street.

I’m very interested in the results of this study as from my point of view, Fayetteville Street has softened up a bit. Things aren’t necessarily bad, there’s just a higher rate of business closings compared to the past. Even with the work-from-home office dynamics still in flux, new businesses have opened with more coming soon. I expect any of my fellow Connoisseurs out there to take any recent news with the right context.

Photo of the 100 Block of Fayetteville Street taken 2023.
100 Block of Fayetteville Street 2023.

My armchair take is that Fayetteville Street is in cruise control. There hasn’t been much to really excite people about it lately. The pandemic was a factor, certainly, but I argue that Fayetteville Street’s complacency started getting into place even before 2020.

One thing that I love about the DRA bringing in an outside consultant to give us feedback about downtown is that they can provide a true outsider’s take. For example, one thing they point out is the general color palette of Fayetteville Street. In short, Fayetteville Street is pretty monotone. The sidewalks are shades of gray and the street furniture consists of gray planters and black benches. This isn’t as exciting until you walk away from Fayetteville Street and see richer colors on other buildings. For example, Deco, Marbles, and Beasley’s are all mentioned in the video as more interesting places. See for yourself in the photos below.

Screenshot from the virtual meeting recording showing photos of Fayetteville Street
Screenshot from the virtual meeting recording showing photos of areas near Fayetteville Street

This comparison really sticks with me as something I didn’t see on my own. It’s things like this that have me itching to see the final report and what comes from it.

One related topic I want to write about in this post is outdoor seating. Not mentioned in the video, or maybe I missed it, is the decline of outdoor seating along Fayetteville Street. Note that the photos above have outdoor seating in the colorful areas but don’t along the monotone areas. I really do think this is an important feature for a vibrant and prosperous urban street.

This decline I mention, at least how I see it, has been happening steadily over the years and why I argue that the street’s “softening” has been happening since about 2015. So with that, let’s talk about PUPS.

The 2015 PUPS Debate

In 2015, criticisms were launched at the city for turning Fayetteville Street into a party street. Indeed, in the mid-2010s, multiple clubs and bars set up directly on the street and from Spring through Fall would use the sidewalks for outdoor space where people would stand outside until 2am having a great time. This kind of vibrancy didn’t sit well with some people and after taking this to our city council, a debate about how the city allows businesses to use the public space (i.e. the sidewalks) began.

Side note, 2015 is also the year of the Raleigh Drunktown Ads so this topic got very political back then. I’ll let you google it for yourself if you’ve never heard of it.

Photo of the 300 block of Fayetteville Street taken in 2012
300 Block of Fayetteville Street 2012. There used to be much more outdoor seating.

PUPS stands for Private Use of Public Space and it’s basically a permitting process that had a big update in 2015. I touched on this topic here on the blog so if you’re interested, you can catch up with this tag. Looking back at it, I was clearly into this topic so let me highlight these three posts:

I think this is where Fayetteville Street starts a slow decline. The short of it is that after the outdoor seating discussions, very rigid rules were put in place. You can see it for yourself even. If you look outside a business on the street, you’ll see these small silver discs, or medallions, on the sidewalk. These indicate a virtual boundary that a business can set up outdoor seating and where they cannot. It’s pretty limiting.

There’s certainly more to all this but the point I want to make, tying this back to the monotone color point made earlier, is that Fayetteville Street seems so rigid that any creativity and flexible uses are starved to death.

I argue that now in the 2020’s, residents and visitors have choices of where to go and where to spend their time. Other downtown districts have created their own identities and even other lifestyle centers around Raleigh have created theirs. Fayetteville Street needs new leaders to get the creative juices going again to make it more interesting but that involves the city loosening up a bit, or even a lot.

Most of my comments during the DRA study have been around outdoor seating. I propose we make it as easy as possible to create outdoor seating on the sidewalks. That might involve the following:

  • Make it cheaper to get a permit
  • Make it easier and faster to get a permit
  • Remove street furniture upon request
  • Allow semi-permanent structures (awnings, pergolas, etc.)
  • Allow running of electricity for fans, heaters, and lights
  • Allow art and color all over, even the sidewalk itself

These seemingly small things most likely go against the policies in place today. I’m an armchair blogger, not a restauranteur, so feedback and understanding about why outdoor seating hasn’t really been done on Fayetteville Street might be worth the effort.

In addition, I think we should even question the other things that happen on the streets and how they support businesses. I’m talking about events. Do they drive people to the restaurants and shops?

Photo of Fayetteville Street taken in 2023

Either way, my thinking is that if the sidewalk regulations loosen up, and we start allowing our local businesses to take center stage down North Carolina’s Main Street, it’ll become much more interesting and dynamic. We should stop treating Fayetteville Street as an event space where the city is the gatekeeper to what happens or not. I’d like to see the great things that local businesses do spill out onto the street. We have the weather for it and the space.

I’m not sure anyone has the appetite for an entire street makeover. Maybe that monotone palette is actually exactly what it should be. We just haven’t allowed the right creatives to paint on that practically blank canvas to make it their own.

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