Last year, Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane returned from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, talking about band parking.
She’d visited the technology-and-music festival in part to recruit businesses and boast about the rise of the city’s tech start-ups and in part to see what Austin did right that perhaps Raleigh didn’t do at all. She noticed that, in Texas, bands were often able to park in front of clubs for a spell without fear of tickets or blocks with no free spaces. Given the success of events like Hopscotch and the then-new World of Bluegrass, she wondered why Raleigh wasn’t making it easier on bands simply trying to entertain the town.
On Tuesday, she got her wish: Raleigh City Council unanimously approved a four-month trial program to institute “Musician Loading Zones” in front of five downtown Raleigh clubs. These special nighttime loading zones, demarcated by signs meant to be especially visible at night, would allow bands to use permits purchased by venues for $25 to unload their gear, move their van, play their show and do it all in reverse order at the end of the night. If the test run goes well, the program could expand to many more venues throughout Raleigh during the next year.
That sounds simple enough, right? Let bands park temporarily near the rooms they’re playing, and make Raleigh seem like a place that encourages its own entertainment industry. But Gordon Dash, the parking administrator with the city, didn’t seem so sure of the program’s simplicity on Thursday morning, two days after the council signed off, though he did seem excited by the end result. In fact, he seemed a bit stressed by the questions that he must now answer in conjunction with the city’s music venues before the test period ends and, to some extent, before it even begins in just 10 weeks.
“It’s always the logistics, isn’t it?” Dash says.
First up is to decide what counts as a venue. In an interview with Triangle Business Journal after the council made its decision, Deep South owner Dave Rose said that Raleigh has more than 80 music venues, and this program is meant to make it easier for bands to play them. That number is a pretty significant stretch, unless you count every restaurant with an occasional jazz combo or a bar with a dude posted up in the corner, strumming John Mayer covers on a six-string. There are, of course, more venues in need of such zones than the five in the early sample (Slim’s, The Pour House, Kings, Lincoln Theatre and Tir Na Nog, guinea pigs selected in conjunction with a committee that included Red Hat Amphitheater’s Taylor Traversari)—Rose’s Deep South isn’t even among the bunch. But if everyone walked with two permits, the city would be littered with Musician Loading Zones, and the inventory of available street spaces would shrink drastically.
“I’m seeking the input of the live venue owners who are heavily engaged in live music, because we need to tailor the qualifications for our uniqueness,” says Dash. “There’s a difference between The Pour House, which does three or four bands a night, or a venue that does a solo guitarist or singer a few nights a week. They might all feel they need the parking, but is that enough to justify it if there are other loading zones that are in high use?”
And once the venues are selected, Dash and the rooms themselves must work to find the best spot that can become a Musician Loading Zone. Preferably, these exist in pre-existing loading zones; additional signage would make it clear that the space simply doesn’t become a free-for-all after dark.
“We don’t want to take more parking away than we have to in order to do this. Will every venue have musician loading right in front? No, because all venues don’t have commercial loading zones right in front,” explains Dash. “But there might be a zone around the corner or just down the street in the same block. Those are the ones that would be used.”
Dash also worries that, between valet zones and taxi stands, no-parking zones and bus zones, the signs around the city for parking will become vexingly complicated. The city staff, he says, is working to devise new signage that spells out access and restrictions very clearly. A central aim of the test run is to see what they get right or wrong and then improve upon it.
“All of those things present signage issues. We’re looking for multi-purpose signs that aren’t confusing, and we’re adding yet another layer of multi-use. That can be a challenge,” he says. “We’re moving forward with new signage that will be more definitive and can hopefully catch the eye of more people and say, ‘This is a restriction that’s unique to the nighttime.’”
At last, once bands actually find the spots intended for their use, the individual clubs that hold the permits will have to develop an efficient system to educate a group of tired, sweaty people just pulling into town on how to use the pass without getting a ticket. Once they park in the zone, Dash says, they’ll need to hustle into the room, scoop the permit and hang it in the van or car in order to avoid a $30 city citation. And though Dash says parking officials have other priorities aside from making sure bands only spend 30 minutes at a time in the spot, they will be watching the spaces to make sure the privilege is not abused.
“It’s not going to be a concerted effort to focus on those zones, especially during the pilot period. We have to be flexible in order to be fair, and the pilot program is going to tell us an awful lot about what will work,” Dash says. “It has never been our goal in parking to be adversarial. It just becomes that way sometimes because everyone wants a restriction that benefits them, and they then want an exemption from that restriction.”
All of this worry might seem like a lot for a little, but Musician Loading Zones could be an important rejoinder to the DrunkTown-driven conception that downtown Raleigh suddenly wants to turn its back on fun. As Rose rightly told Triangle Business Journal, “When people are walking around and see signs saying ‘Band Loading Zone’, they know Raleigh is a music town. Then they might get curious and want to check it out.’”