Aug 18, 2022 - News

Charlotte trails other cities in allowing drinking in the streets in ‘social districts’

social districts

Raleigh launched its social district this week. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

The City of Charlotte will soon vote on a highly anticipated policy to allow for “social districts” in certain neighborhoods.

But that doesn’t mean people can suddenly start drinking on the streets. It will take longer to see the actual implementation of these open container destinations — possibly several months.

  • Monday, city leaders are expected to approve an ordinance. After that, neighborhoods like Plaza Midwood or NoDa apply to become social districts.
  • Meanwhile, Kannapolis is coming up on one year of running a social district. Greensboro launched its district in March. Other smaller cities like Cornelius, Monroe and Salisbury all have social districts, too.

What’s happening: In summer 2021, after cities blocked off streets for safe outdoor dining and drinking during the pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law allowing North Carolina cities and counties to outline boundaries where patrons can sip alcohol while strolling the streets.

  • The concept has piqued the interest of bar-centric communities, but it’s also highlighted existing issues related to pedestrian safety and litter.
  • Critics also worry about public intoxication, though it’s technically illegal for businesses to serve people who are impaired.

What’s next: After the city adopts its new code, neighborhoods must seek out the social district status.

  • District 1 Rep. Larken Egleston predicts the first social district won’t launch until early next year. But the timeline also depends on how much newly elected council members prioritize it once they’re sworn in this September.
  • City staff has to iron out other details, such as creating an avenue to apply.

“If we vote in the affirmative, which I believe we will, there’s not going to be a social district up and running on August 23,” Egleston tells Axios. “There’s still work to do. That work is certainly going to involve community conversations, working with residents and businesses.”

Russell Fergusson, a member of the Plaza Midwood Merchants Association, is hoping the ordinance is passed quickly with few restrictions next week. He worries restaurants and bars will not participate if the rule list gets too long to make it worthwhile.

  • People are already openly drinking on the street, Fergusson says.
  • “We have open drinking across half of our downtown every time there’s a Panthers game, now every time there’s an FC game, a smaller degree for baseball games,” says Fergusson, who is also an attorney and partner of Dish restaurant. “We already have this de facto existence of social district, even though it wasn’t legal at all until this last year.”

The hold-up: Charlotte delayed the process of establishing social districts in June because of concerns raised by council and community members, according to a city memo.

  • Plus, officials recognized the complexities of managing multiple districts, some of which will be near residential areas.
  • Clifton Castelloe, president of the Plaza Midwood Merchants Association, tells Axios he’s heard anxieties about boisterous customers in the street. “But we found, at least in discussion with other cities, that social districts don’t actually turn out to be that way,” he says.
  • Plaza Midwood had dining and drinking on Thomas Street for months during COVID-19 restrictions. “It worked, and it was nice,” Fergusson says. “But it didn’t suddenly become Mardi Gras.”

The intrigue: Plaza Midwood Merchants Association expects a social district to benefit community events, such as markets, with larger turnouts.

  • The district is expected to encompass Commonwealth and Central Avenue, likely starting at Hawthorne Lane and stretching to Pinhouse or Resident Culture Brewing Company.

Zoom out: In Asheboro, about 90 miles from Charlotte, people are now sipping and strolling in the lively downtown, formerly a textile town. The footprint of the social district is relatively small, consisting of a park, a parking lot and a strip of Sunset Avenue.

  • It’s notable that the “zoo city” locked down its social district before Charlotte did, as Asheboro was North Carolina’s largest “dry” city until 2008. The idea of a social district was met with some resistance. People assumed it would turn downtown into a party scene. “Given the history of Randolph County, it wasn’t surprising,” says Joel McClosky, founder of Four Saints Brewing Company.
  • Instead, the district has drawn zoo visitors to the downtown and improved attendance of summer concerts, says Barbara Gallimore, owner of “The Flying Pig” bar and grill (appropriately named for when residents believed they’d see alcohol sales in the city.)
  • Grabbing an alcoholic beverage to sip on outside also eases customers’ patience during long wait times, Gallimore says. The main challenge she’s run into is people thinking they can enter the establishment with a drink from somewhere else.

Raleigh’s social district on Fayetteville Street — an office-filled area that includes Red Hat Amphitheater, but otherwise has slow foot traffic since the pandemic — was open for business as of this past Monday, Axios Raleigh reported. The social district ends by 10pm every night.

  • Per the law, all to-go drinks are in branded cups that identify which business they came from. (Patrons can’t just walk down the street with a Bud Light from their fridge.)
  • Raleigh’s cups are plastic with “Sip n’ Stroll” branding.

The other side: Although there were no opponents to social districts during a recent public hearing, both business representatives and environmentally conscious residents are advocating for an alternative to single-use plastics in the ordinance.

  • Plaza Midwood is looking at the option of aluminum kegs that customers could return for money back. But more likely, they’ll pour to-go drinks into compostable cups. The merchants association might chip in to cover the start-up costs, but ultimately the price will be passed onto customers.

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