You'll no doubt recall—possibly because we talked about it ad infinitum—that in August Raleigh's City Council launched a three-month pilot program to try to rein in outdoor drinking downtown, following complaints from some residents that revelers were clogging sidewalks and generally being too raucous too late into the night.
But then in November, the council walked back the restrictions, saying the hit on bar and restaurant owners—compounded by random, disruptive visits from the police and fire departments—outweighed the benefits. Besides, council members said, having patrons seated rather than standing, as the new ordinance requires, solved most of the problems. So they voted 6–2 to extend weekend sidewalk-patio hours from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. and take another look at the 15-square-feet-per-person occupancy limit.
That second look will take the form of six meetings before the city's Appearance Commission, which will then make recommendations to the council. The 14-member panel held the first of those meetings last week.
No decisions were made, of course. There was talk about other cities' best practices and the proper way to delineate where a bar or restaurant ends and where a sidewalk begins and regulate the use of outdoor furniture, signage and seating. As might be expected, we left with more questions than answers.
Restaurant owners want to be clear about exactly where they can place outdoor seating: Does it have to be directly in front of their establishments, or can they place seats off to the sides? Will split layouts (i.e., layouts with furniture on both sides and a walkway in between) be allowed? Is there a way to coordinate delineation and furniture to make downtown not look like a flea market? And how will occupancy limits, which will be based on analyses of how much space a place has, be enforced?
Underscoring all the discussion is the question of how the city will comply with the state's ABC laws, which commission member Rolf Blizzard called "all over the place"—for instance, split layouts are technically prohibited, but that rule is seldom if ever enforced.
The Appearance Commission meets Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Raleigh's City Hall. Buckle up: It's going to be an exciting few weeks. (Excitement is relative. Your mileage may vary.)
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