In 2015, the question of whether bars and restaurants should be allowed to spill out onto downtown sidewalks became all-consuming in Raleigh. An ad that appeared in The News & Observer a week before the October election depicted a hunched-over man, leaning on a lamppost, seemingly seconds from puking. It ran with the instantly infamous caption, “Do we really want Raleigh to become drunktown?”
Times have changed.
For starters, Mary-Ann Baldwin—the city council’s biggest backer of downtown nightlife back then—is now mayor. But more importantly, the coronavirus pandemic has Raleigh’s leaders considering a program that could lead to the soft closures of downtown’s main drags to allow for more curbside restaurant and bar seating as well as expanded pedestrian and bicycle access.
Amid the state’s stay-at-home order, which was lifted last week, Raleigh residents had few options for recreation beyond the city’s sprawling greenway system, which left areas like Lynn Lake, Lake Johnson, and sections of the Neuse Greenway heavily trafficked. Concerns about crowding on the trails and a lack of social distancing left city officials wondering if the now-empty downtown could help ease the burden while also giving restaurants an opportunity to expand seating beyond their brick-and-mortar locations, which Governor Cooper has restricted to 50 percent capacity for at least the next month. (Capacity is based on indoor seating.)
In two unanimous votes last week, the council authorized its staff to analyze viable streets for shared uses and soft closures—meaning roads are not permanently blocked off—while also exploring options to increase outdoor dining.
The “shared streets” concept is nothing new. Oakland, Denver, Seattle, and even Charlotte have already implemented versions. Oakland used soft closures to transform streets into “bike boulevards” over 20 miles of the city. Charlotte has identified three corridors in which to restrict traffic and expand multimodal access; it has five more streets under consideration.
In Raleigh, city staffers suggested analyzing the streetscape for areas already used by bicyclists to find locations with low speed limits and access to greenways, parks, and commercial areas. During a presentation last week, Baldwin wondered if there could be a connection between Chavis and Dix Parks. Council member Corey Branch asked if areas near schools with vacant parking lots could be considered as well.
Expanding outdoor dining is more complicated and could require changing the city’s existing ordinances or requesting permitting and insurance extensions from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. If the city moves forward, it could mean fully closing streets to allow restaurants to sprawl out their dining areas onto the sidewalk and into the street. Other options include targeting restaurants that already have outdoor dining, focusing on parking lots, or creating pathways around sidewalks to protect pedestrians’ right-of-way while also expanding available dining space.
No matter which route the city chooses, it will have to be handicapped-accessible, council member Nicole Stewart pointed out. And because no one knows how long the pandemic will last, Stewart urged her colleagues to get a pilot program off the ground quickly.
“It’s going to be crucial for us to act quickly and be flexible while working with our business owners across the city,” Stewart said.
Trophy Brewing owner David Meeker agreed. An avid longtime runner and bicyclist, he says sidewalks have been congested for the last few weeks, making social distancing impossible.
Meeker sees the pandemic as an opportunity to try something new and “take back the streets from cars.”
“In some ways, we need to go out and do it,” he says. “We might be running out of time; we don’t know how long this is going to last. It’s a game-changer for some businesses: outdoor seating is the best sign you can have, while businesses are reopening, to say to people, ‘Hey, we’re open. Come by.’”
Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DEAR READERS, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW MORE THAN EVER. Support independent local journalism by joining the INDY Press Club today. Your contributions will keep our fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle, coronavirus be damned.