The City of Raleigh may create a “social district” around Fayetteville Street later this year, allowing people to walk around downtown Raleigh with open containers of wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages.

Raleigh would be the biggest city in the state to create a social district since the North Carolina legislature passed a law allowing them last year. Greensboro launched its own social district in March, while Durham and Charlotte are in the midst of planning for one.

Raleigh officials hope creating a social district will draw more foot traffic downtown, boosting businesses that are struggling after the COVID pandemic. The proposed district would encompass the blocks east and west of Fayetteville Street, as well as Moore Square and City Market. 

The idea is that people could take their drinks to go after having dinner or leaving a bar, then walk around downtown to shop or make their way to places like the Raleigh Convention Center or North Carolina Theater. Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium is also just south of the proposed social district. 

“It’s folks on a Saturday, just kind of strolling and [who] have a drink in their hand and stop into a store that’s participating and shop,” said council member Jonathan Melton during this week’s meeting of the Raleigh Economic Development and Innovation Committee. “It’s not meant to be this party vibe. It’s more to enjoy the amenities of the city.”

Raleigh officials expect to start a pilot program in mid- to late-summer to test the idea, get feedback from nearby businesses and residents, and work out any kinks before enacting it permanently. 

Public drinking would be allowed in the district on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Hours have yet to be determined, but Melton suggested 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with more limited hours on Sunday to catch the brunch crowd. 

Council member David Knight said he had some reservations about those hours, and that he would be more comfortable with closing the social district at 9 or 10 p.m. 

“We’re not looking for a party crowd,” Knight said. “We’re just trying to add a little bit more to draw people in for whatever they want to do.” 

Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin also raised the question of how the social district would interact with special events like Artsplosure, which has to obtain a special permit from the city to sell alcoholic beverages. In those cases, the city could enact a policy stating that special events take precedence over the social district—in other words, that public drinking would be governed by the rules of the permit, not the district. 

About 48 percent of downtown businesses are generally in support of a social district, according to a recent poll conducted by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. But a portion, about 20 percent, would like more information about how the city will enforce the boundaries, manage litter, and prevent disorderly behavior before supporting the proposal. 

Nearby residents share those concerns, wanting more information about enforcement, trash, and drunk and disorderly behavior. Still, they too are generally supportive and interested, said Alliance president Bill King. 

Survey respondents favored Fayetteville Street and City Market as a location for the social district. Residents were split on a social district in Glenwood South, with 42 percent saying it would be an appropriate location and 31 percent saying it would not be an appropriate location. 

Glenwood South has long been a site of controversy for the public, with some longtime Raleigh residents complaining of noise, litter, and drunken misbehavior by club-goers. Crime there has also spiked in recent years, leading to a discussion by city officials on how to reduce it.

Late last year, in an effort to address resident concerns, the city council voted to reduce the hours food stands could operate. It was a move condemned by pushcart vendors, who said it would kill their business and do nothing to help dispel foot traffic after 1 a.m.

Regarding the proposed social district, Baldwin said she wanted to be sure to “get it right,” avoiding criticism like the kind the council garnered in 2015 over sidewalk drinking restrictions. Raleigh is much larger than the towns that have already created social districts, she noted. 

Melton pushed back, saying he wants to enact the pilot program soon while continuing to gather feedback from businesses and residents. 

“I like to lead on issues,” Melton said. “I certainly don’t want Durham and Charlotte to get ahead of us.”

Raleigh’s Economic Development and Innovation Committee is expected to vote on more detailed proposal for a social district pilot program at their next meeting in late June. If approved, it would then move to the full city council. 

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