Compared to some entertainment districts, Glenwood South in Raleigh is a humble strip.
It doesn’t have the bustling crowds of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, the rowdiness of Austin’s Sixth Street, or the live music presence of Memphis’s Beale. But as the strip has grown into a booming bar and club scene over the last decade, conflicts around noise and safety have divided Glenwood South’s identity in two: for some, a residential, family-friendly haven, and for others, a weekend nightlife destination.
“There’s this culture and vibe of Glenwood South that is beneficial to the city,” says Raleigh City Council member Jonathan Melton. “But if it’s not safe and if people who live nearby can’t enjoy their homes, then it’s going to consistently be a problem—and so what we need to do is strike a good balance.”
New ordinances that are before the Raleigh City Council are attempting to find that sweet spot between the two.
This summer, the City Attorney’s Office brought two proposals to the council: the first, a noise ordinance, would replace the current structure of Glenwood South’s noise policing; the second, a nightclub permit proposal, would enhance safety rules and impart harsher penalties on businesses that qualify as nightclubs that violate them.
These ordinances were proposed after years of mitigating noise level and safety concerns between residents and entertainment businesses, says Larry Miller, president of the Glenwood South Neighborhood Collaborative. He notes that more than 4,300 people reside on Glenwood South.
“They choose to live here in Glenwood South because it’s a great community, it’s walkable, it has a lot of amenities around,” Miller says. “But on weekend nights, it’s an entertainment district and you get tens of thousands of individuals that come here to party.”
The noise ordinance would change Raleigh’s system of noise regulation for the district. Currently, that system is based on decibel readings that police officers take, but the ordinance would switch it over to a reasonable person standard, in which, during nighttime hours, any “reasonable person” standing more than 150 feet away from the source of the sound can report noise that they deem unacceptably loud.
According to the ordinance, a reasonable person is defined as “a person of normal and ordinary sensitivities who is within the area of the audibility or perceptibility of the noise or vibration that transmits sounds which disrupt the reasonable conduct of basic human activities, such as conversation, sleep, work and other such activities.”
The proposed noise ordinance doesn’t make any changes to the fines that businesses receive for noise complaints but rather to the means of enforcing those complaints, says Melton.
“My understanding is that with the [decibel reader] machines that they were using before, it’s difficult or impossible to actually precisely trace it back to a single source of noise,” Melton says. “And so when you have an area that’s generally loud, it’s difficult to enforce it because you can’t prove that it’s coming from one certain place.”
The proposed reasonable person standard would cut out reliance on machinery entirely and instead would depend on residents to call in complaints to police officers, who would have the onus of deciding whether the noise is unreasonable before issuing a citation to the business that’s causing the amplified sound.
But sound concerns aren’t the only thing weighing on the neighborhoods and streets of Glenwood South. Safety on the strip has been a hot topic this summer after two shootings took place in a span of two months, as well as a rise in drug dealing, weapons, larceny, and assaults.
“I do think that a lot of what we’re seeing now, with the spillover into the neighborhoods and the destruction of personal property and gun violence—we have to address that or it is going to become a much bigger problem,” Melton says. “I am all for having that cultural, fun, booming Glenwood South area, but we have to get a handle on these other issues or it’s all going to go away.”
The other proposed ordinance, the nightclub permit, focuses almost entirely on safety, scrapping the existing entertainment permitting process for an entirely new model—and threatening fines as high as $5,000 for first-time noncompliance with the new rules.
In 2014, the Raleigh City Council adopted a system for amplified entertainment permits (AEPs) and hospitality district entertainment permits (HDEPs). Glenwood South was considered a hospitality district, so bars and clubs on the strip could apply for an HDEP that would allow “amplified entertainment for special events on the establishment’s premises not otherwise permitted in a hospitality district,” according to the permit.
The proposed nightclub permit does away with AEPs and HDEPs entirely, instead proposing a new definition, in which any establishment that uses 10 percent of its standing space for dancing, has live or recorded entertainment, and allows the consumption of alcoholic beverages qualifies as a nightclub. All nightclubs will require a nightclub permit.
The nightclub permit itself requires a number of steps. In addition to heightening security presence and safety measures for nightclubs with parking lots, every establishment is required to provide the manager’s name and contact information so that it’s available to the public, as well as to install a shunt trip breaker, also known as a “kill switch,” that can eliminate all sound from sound-producing devices, special lights, jukeboxes, and any other electronic devices with the press of a button.
It’s unclear whether the shunt breaker, which several Glenwood businesses already have installed, would be used solely for emergency purposes, but pressing the kill switch on a busy night could cost that business revenue, says Glenwood South DJ Jeffrey Sherman.
“It’s kind of ludicrous to me that somebody should be able to affect thousands of dollars of commerce,” Sherman says.
That isn’t the only potential cost for nightclubs. A first-time offense against any of the permit’s requirements is a $5,000 civil penalty and permit suspension until the establishment complies. A second-time offense in the same 12-month period is a one-year permit revocation, with no appeals process.
Miller says that one major hole in the permit’s wording is that it doesn’t provide any information on how the nightclub permitting process works or how businesses will be notified if they are defined as a nightclub.
“[Let’s say] you have a restaurant and once a month you have a band that comes in and plays for the diners. You don’t have a dance floor, but everybody in the restaurant’s watching your performance—does that now make you a nightclub?” Miller asks. “If they didn’t realize they were a nightclub and didn’t have that [shunt breaker], they get a $5,000 fine. And then if they don’t get it fixed within a reasonable [time frame], they lose their permit.”
To receive feedback on the ordinances and fill any potential holes in the writing, the council held two listening sessions in August where the public was invited to comment on the proposals.
Angela Floyd, a resident at Paramount Condominiums, which backs up to several bars on Glenwood South, spoke at these sessions about her experience as a resident.
“We made [the move to downtown Raleigh] about nine years ago and really enjoyed it,” Floyd says. “But about seven years ago, things kind of started to change over at Glenwood South. Raleigh gets a lot of attention for being one of the best cities in the United States—and I’m proud of that, I think we are a great city—but I feel that Glenwood South has really lost its charm.”
When she first moved there, Floyd says the strip used to be dotted with a few bars, a tapas restaurant, a florist, a burger joint, and a guitar shop. Now, she says, Glenwood South is just bar after bar.
“Since we sit right behind it, we are impacted by that late-night loud noise, the vibrating music and the motorcycle noise,” Floyd says. “At least from Friday to Sunday the noise would be so loud; I mean, it really would rattle the windows in our bedroom.”
The noise got especially bad following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. When businesses started opening back up, the city encouraged bars, restaurants, and nightclubs to build up their outdoor dining and entertainment spaces. And while these outdoor spaces helped people participate in post-pandemic life again while feeling safe, they’ve worsened the amplified music projection.
Since then, bar owners have realized that they need to scale back on noise, and the residents and bar owners are currently sitting at the closest thing to an equilibrium that they’ve had in years. But while the noise ordinance’s switch from decibel levels to a reasonable person standard seems like it’s placing more of a limit on noise, Miller doesn’t think much will change.
“I think some people think it’s going to be stricter, and you’re going to hold the businesses to a higher standard,” Miller says. “But personally I don’t think that’s the case, because under the old standards it’s 65 [decibels]—that is pretty quiet. That’s basically a conversational level.”
Both the noise ordinance and nightclub permit raise questions of effectiveness, but Sherman says if there’s one thing that unites entertainers and residents, it’s concerns over safety. The district made news back in May when First Lady Kristin Cooper criticized the late-night partying, and the city’s inability to manage it, following an intrusion on the Coopers’ nearby private residence in the early morning hours one weekend. Just last month, the general manager of a local restaurant died following an assault that took place at the 500 block of Glenwood South around closing time.
“There’s a 2 a.m. hard cutoff on clubs, and what happens is you have this mass exodus of half intoxicated people mixing in with religious extremists, college kids,” Sherman says. “When you have all these people at one time leaving and they all have the same goal in mind, they’re just trying to get home—bad things happen, fights break out, things disrupt neighborhoods.”
Sherman says a makeover of Glenwood South could make a big difference in behavior.
“The streets need to be repaved, the sidewalks need to be cleaned up,” Sherman says. “It just doesn’t look like a 2023 model, it looks like a 1987 piece of crap Buick that’s about to break down,” he says. “And you know what? If we keep shoveling this weight onto it, it’s going to break down. What I’m proposing is a makeover of the strip. We need to add art installations that promote positive messages.”
It’s clear that there’s still work to be done. But no matter what the council decides regarding the two ordinances, its efforts show that the city believes Glenwood South is something worth saving, Floyd says.
“I am optimistic, I want to try something different,” Floyd says. “We know what we have hasn’t worked, but that’s kind of like continuous quality improvement: you try something, it doesn’t work, you take it back and you try it again. And I appreciate a city that’s willing to do that.”
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Correction: Beale Street is in Memphis, not Nashville. This story has been corrected.
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