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How Raleigh bars (probably) beat back sidewalk restrictions

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From the get-go, Raleigh city staffers weren't coy about which side they were on.

In their view, this was a simple problem requiring a simple solution: Downtown bars had gotten out of hand—too loud, too congested, too dirty, too raucous—and residents wanted them reined in.

This is what the Fayetteville Street District's Livable Streets Subcommittee, chaired by Greg Hatem, Empire Properties founder, and Will Marks, a PNC Tower resident, recommended at its April 28 meeting: Alter the city's Private Use of Public Spaces ordinance to shut down outdoor patios after 11 p.m., and forbid bars that don't serve food from those areas. As bar supporters later noted, this proposal wouldn't have hit Hatem's The Raleigh Times as hard as other downtown establishments.

The city attorney's office took that ball and ran with it. By the end of May, it had constructed a text change to the ordinance to "clarify" that the city never intended for bars to obtain sidewalk permits, even though they had been getting them for nearly a decade.

On June 2, the subcommittee's recommendations were hand-delivered to City Hall. (A week later Empire executive Andrew Stewart told the INDY that "neither Empire nor Greg Hatem was involved in promoting this text change.")

City staffers slotted the change for that day's City Council consent agenda, like it wasn't a big deal.

But it was a big deal. For some bars, it would have been a death sentence. And so they protested, and they got the city's attention. Council kicked the ordinance to its Law and Public Safety Committee, helmed by Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin. At the committee meeting June 9, scores of bar supporters packed into Council chambers, many wearing #savethepatios T-shirts.

By meeting's end, Baldwin had declared dead the proposal's most controversial aspect—differentiating between bars and restaurants—and the committee voted to defer action on the rest of the ordinance for a month. Meanwhile, the city would convene a Hospitality Committee of a dozen interested parties to try to reach a consensus.

Every Thursday afternoon since, save the one before the Fourth of July, the committee members and a dozen or so staffers have convened in a conference room on the third floor of City Hall. But as of last Thursday's meeting, the final one before the ordinance was sent back to Baldwin's committee, consensus had proven elusive—so elusive that Derrick Remer, the city's emergency management and special events manager, declared at the outset that they would no longer try to reach one.

Instead, they would review the four options staff would present to the committee on July 28. These ranged from the very strict (the Livable Streets Subcommittee proposal, even though Baldwin had previously spiked it) to the moderately strict (midnight shutdown) to the more-relaxed-with-a-catch (2:30 a.m. shutdown, same as now, but with a permit fee that could rise from $150 to, in some cases, $4,000-plus a year to pay for extra enforcement). In all cases, staff imagined that capacity would be limited to one person for every 15 square feet of outdoor space.

"We're probably not going to come to a consensus," Remer told the group.

What he didn't know was that they already had, at least on most issues. Two days earlier, Paddy O'Beers owner Zack Medford and five other members—believing staff had its own agenda—met privately to develop with their own proposal, which they then brought to the committee.

It was, of course, more bar-friendly than anything staff had considered. In some cases—sidewalk patios that don't have furniture, for example—it actually relaxed occupancy limits, a prospect that made staff uneasy. It also explicitly made bar owners responsible for cleanliness and crowd control.

There wasn't immediate unanimity, but it did serve as a useful starting point. After some debate, the permit fee was increased to $300. A suggestion to allow bars to use the sidewalks in front of adjoining properties with permission from the building owner was nixed, as staff said this would run afoul of ABC rules. And eventually, the committee voted in favor of Medford's occupancy limits.

That left just one issue: closing times. While members agreed that the sidewalks should shut down at midnight on Sunday through Thursday, they couldn't decide between midnight and 2 a.m. for weekends. This, they decided, would be best left up to Council.

Cutting sidewalks off at midnight, Medford told the INDY after the meeting, would be a crushing blow: Ninety percent of his weekend sales come between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. He sees 2 a.m. on weekends as a compromise, as the sidewalks can currently stay open until 2:30 seven days a week.

City staff didn't see it that way. From their perspective, they had planned to cut off non-restaurants altogether, and now bars wanted standing-room-only crowds until, potentially, 2 a.m.

It's possible the Law and Public Safety Committee—which met Tuesday afternoon—or the City Council on Aug. 4 will opt for something more restrictive; indeed, this consensus is but one of four options staff will offer, the others tinkering with closing times, occupancy and permit fees. (Check the INDY's blog for updates.)

But no matter what, the bar owners appear to have staved off what, for them, would have been disaster—whether staff liked it or not.

This article appeared in print with the headline "How the sidewalks were (probably) won"

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