Amidst Sidewalk Dining Crack Down, Cox and Mendell Ignore Lack of Access to City Buildings

By Brent Woodcox

It's 2015 all over again when it comes to sidewalk dining debates in Raleigh.

After a two year process that emerged with a compromise proposal on rules for outdoor dining in public right of ways, city council upended those rules without much explanation or debate and threw the whole process into chaos just a few weeks ahead of the time for annual permit renewals for affected businesses.

Needless to say, businesses were caught off guard by sudden new requirements when they had been relying on the old rules to make plans, purchase seating and tables and prepare for the summer season downtown.

Outdoor dining was a controversial sticking point during the municipal elections in 2015. In looking into concerns about downtown noise, traffic and excessive drinking, the council originally required businesses to rope off outdoor dining areas with stanchions and ropes. That was later changed in 2016 to the medallions in the sidewalks that you can see on city streets now.

The rules approved this year mainly outline where outdoor seating can be located, based on the size of the sidewalk, to prevent a “meandering path” for pedestrians. This means all outdoor seating will be on one side of the sidewalk instead of switching back and forth based on the business. The change also details how close outdoor seating can be to tree grates.

”The sidewalk is for the public and for the public to be able to move safely,” council member Kay Crowder said at a meeting this week. “If any area is too small for dining and not allowing the public to move freely and safely, whether in a wheelchair, walking or with a baby stroller, it is our obligation to make sure the pathway is clear for pedestrians. It is part of the city’s right-of-way.”

The overall goal of accessibility is one the city should keep, but the onus can’t just be on businesses to meet that, said council member Nicole Stewart, who serves as the council liaison to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.

”It’s really on council to hear the business concerns, and I do think we should bring it back to the council table and figure out the best way forward to make sure we are all working together,” she said.

The downtown alliance is working with the city to determine the impact to businesses, said its CEO, Kris Larson. He added that he’s confident there is a middle ground.

”We believe that their intent to improve accessibility comes from a good place, but also recognize that changes may have created some unintended complexity when applied to downtown’s diverse shape and conditions,” he said in a statement. “We hope that better understanding the specifics of each condition will provide insight ... that accomplishes accessibility without significant reductions to patio dining.”
— Anna Johnson - N&O

It's certainly the right thing to do make sure our sidewalks are accessible to people with disabilities and anyone with special mobility needs. There is likely universal agreement on that point.

But if that is the case and we all agree that we want to improve access for people with disabilities, why were these rules rushed through basically without notice to the affected businesses and without any public input being offered? Were there any alternatives considered that would have less of an impact on small businesses downtown that rely on outdoor seating to make a good portion of their revenue during the warmer months? Would it have been possible to adopt a rule that allowed for greater flexibility while still allowing a straight path for people on downtown blocks where they are needed? Not all sidewalks downtown are one size fits all. So it might make sense as someone moves from block to block downtown to see a slightly altered path as you progress through those blocks. This shouldn't be disruptive or burdensome to anyone, particularly those with disabilities, but what efforts were made to balance the concerns of businesses with those who are skeptical of sidewalk dining? Couldn't an effort be made to standardize paths by each block rather than force a one size fits all rule on the whole city when that obviously is a poor fit for the realities of city streets and rights of ways downtown?

Unfortunately, it seems that these questions have gone unanswered to this point. That's a problem because the city has already adopted new rules. No legitimate process for doing so would have allowed those questions to remain unanswered even as the city rushed to take action.

What has happened instead is that Councilor David Cox has taken to Twitter to criticize anyone who wants a better process and an outcome that brings both advocates for people with disabilities and small business owners to the table to reach a compromise solution of not being sufficiently concerned with the needs of people with disabilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Advocating for transparency, compromise and good government process does not make anyone opposed to the needs of people with disabilities.

That's obviously a rather shameful and manipulative tactic designed to quell dissent and silence any legitimate criticism of the problematic process that got us to this point.

But it's particularly infuriating in light of the fact that city government facilities themselves do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. These basic civil rights protections for people with disabilities to guarantee that they have the same access to government buildings and public meetings as everyone else are required under federal law and have been since 1990.

So it is at best an egregious oversight and at worst blatant hypocrisy for Councilor Cox to paint himself as an advocate for people with disabilities when he has been on the council for the last 3 years and hasn't lifted a finger to help people with disabilities gain access to city buildings. Instead, he wants to label our small business owners in Raleigh who are also covered by the ADA and who actually comply with the law as unsympathetic to the needs of people with disabilities. It's an insult to the people who work hard to create jobs and make our city a vibrant place to live. But it's also an insult to the intelligence of every citizen of Raleigh who he is trying to manipulate, particularly those with people with disabilities and mobility issues who he is trying to use as pawns to serve his own personal political agenda.

And what is that agenda? For that, we'll have to look at Councilor Mendell's take on the situation.

It seems that the true motivation here isn't a concern with mobility issues that affect people with disabilities as they move about the city. No, it's a philosophical opposition to the idea that businesses should be able to use the public spaces that they fund with their tax dollars to do business, period. The logic of this position would demand no sidewalk dining options at all.

Either Councilor Mendell and Councilor Cox are hypocritically demanding one standard be followed by small businesses while exempting city government from offering basic access to people with disabilities in its buildings or their motivations aren't truly based on what is best for people with disabilities after all.

Either way, we can do better as a city to ensure that Raleigh is a diverse and inclusive place for all than the broken process and surprise crack down on sidewalk dining that got us here. We can and should make room for all on our city sidewalks and everywhere else in Raleigh because that is how we can become the vibrant city of opportunity that we are meant to be.

Brent Woodcox