Farewell to Drunktown?

Glenwood South
Glenwood South

Changes are coming to downtown’s unofficial entertainment district; will perceptions of Glenwood South begin to change?

Raleigh is of two minds about Glenwood South.

On the one hand, it’s the city’s fastest-growing downtown district with more than $830 million in investment in the last four years. Massive mixed use complexes frame its southern and northern ends—One Glenwood and N. West Street’s Smokey Hollow, respectively—adding hundreds of thousands of square feet in office space and retail. And the Glenwood South district has seen the most residential growth recently, with a third of all new and planned units downtown.

On the other hand, there’s a flavor of local snobbery about Glenwood South.

Comparisons to the Jersey shore abound and it was vaguely lumped into “Drunktown,” a poorly executed political ad campaign targeting candidates who supported outdoor dining on city sidewalks during the run-up to the 2015 City Council elections. The semi-satirical ITB Insider media brand and its associated Twitter account, @WNFIV, refer to it as “Gelwood South,” and reports of fights and shootings get amplified in media (and on social media) as if it’s the only place in Raleigh where crimes occur.

But Glenwood South residents and business owners say that perception of their neighborhood is inaccurate and unfortunate. “Ninety-five percent of the time, we don’t have any issues,” says Larry Miller, who lives at 510 Glenwood, the condos above the Plus Dueling Piano Bar. “If you move there, you know there’s going to be noise on the weekends and I don’t see any big pressure to have to do something to change it.”

Still, Glenwood South is changing. And while its likely to keep its reputation as a weekend party spot, it will also come to be known more widely, and appreciated, for its other assets and amenities.

“[Development] will start to change the district,” says Bill King, president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. “Now, it’s really busy evenings and weekends, but during the daytime, foot traffic is less consistent. More office space will add daytime foot traffic to support more retail and restaurants.”

Leading Downtown Growth

There’s a case to be made that downtown Raleigh’s revitalization actually began on Glenwood South and not necessarily with the re-opening of Fayetteville Street to car traffic in 2006.

In the mid-1990s, independent merchants—many of them immigrants to the United States—began opening businesses along the stretch of road running from Hillsborough Street to Peace Street leading out of downtown. “All the growth was really organic, it all just happened,” says Jim Belt, who moved to Glenwood South in 2001 and founded the merchants-residents group the Glenwood South Neighborhood Collaborative in 2014. “We’re really more of a neighborhood than a district in that sense.”

Hibernian Irish Pub & Restaurant
Hibernian Irish Pub & Restaurant

One such immigrant business owner, Niall Hanley, opened Hibernian, an Irish pub and restaurant, on Glenwood 20 years ago next spring. Others followed suit and Hanley himself has opened several more businesses (including the Raleigh Beer Garden and Solas) on Glenwood and elsewhere downtown.

“It’s incredible seeing the evolution and ebbs and flow of downtown and back to Glenwood,” says Hanley, who recalls when Hibernian and Sullivan’s Steakhouse were the only two options available.

In 2014, in an attempt to encourage Glenwood South’s growth and to assuage resident complaints about noise, Raleigh’s City Council piloted what was called the Glenwood South Hospitality District, making it easier for businesses to obtain permits to play music during the night hours as long as permit holders designated a manager to deal with complaints from nearby residents. The guidelines were successful and became a permanent fixture. Today, says Miller, the current president of the Glenwood South Neighborhood Collaborative, taking up issues with business owners—as opposed to involving the police—continues to be a successful strategy.

Focusing on the Good

But there are problems still, in bar-heavy Glenwood South (and on Fayetteville Street), especially on weekends. This spring, Council members received a report on ways to potentially make Glenwood South safer following a spate of closing time shootings, including a fatal shooting in a parking deck, fights and “quality of life” violations such as public intoxication, indecent exposure and drug offenses. This spring, the News and Observer reported that, of 132 guns police officers confiscated downtown in 2018, 57 were seized in Glenwood South

In response, the Raleigh Police Department Downtown District has adopted an egress plan that involves “the placement of police resources (officers and vehicles) at locations to ensure availability” during closing times, minimizing traffic congestion and ensuring “delivery of any emergency services that may be needed,” according to RPD spokesperson Donna-maria Harris.

“All areas of the city present challenges at times,” Harris wrote in an email to Raleigh Magazine. “Our officers strive to serve this area with professionalism and are encouraged to seek opportunities to engage our community in positive ways.”

“You will always have teething problems in general when people start showing up,” says Hibernian’s Hanley. “People are the one thing you cannot control.”

And while Glenwood South’s problems have long been the subject of outsized and, arguably, unfair scrutiny, residents say they are not reflective of their neighborhood as a whole.

They’d rather focus on the positives, like public art—an area Glenwood South pioneered, with residents knitting tree sweaters and snowflakes and painting colorful murals onto crosswalks in years past—and resident groups doing good. Glenwood Gatherings, a group of residents who get together weekly to work on artsy projects, recently honored the neighborhood’s immigrant spirit by crocheting several dozen sleeping mats out of plastic bags to gift to refugees.

“We have a lot of good artists in [Glenwood South], and also, businesses cooperating in letting the neighborhood use their places for [public art],” says Belt.

Looking to the Future

Glenwood South residents, business owners and other investors and stakeholder groups like the DRA say that the perception of Glenwood South as being strictly a raucous party area are misplaced.

“It’s a misperception, based off of a perception of a handful of bars, that is applied broadly to the district as a whole,” says DRA’s King. “I don’t think it’s a particularly fair thing to say about the district. There is a lot more fabric to [Glenwood South] than just some clubs.”

Indeed, Glenwood South is home to high-end restaurants and bars including C. Grace, Plates Kitchen, Vidrio and The Cortez, whose chef, Oscar Diaz, was recently named as a James Beard Award semi-finalist. Raleigh Beer Garden, with the largest beer selection in the world, has become an internationally known tourist destination, and one of many businesses driving the district’s position citywide as a top generator of downtown’s food and beverage tax revenues (food and drink sales downtown totaled $240 million in 2018). New hotels in Glenwood South, including the upcoming Origin and Willard, means more space for visitors to sleep and independently owned shops and businesses, such as Revolver Boutique and Raleigh Vintage, The Cupcake Shoppe and The Raleigh Wine Shop, Soundoff Records and Glenwood South Tailor and Alterations, help maintain its homegrown, uniquely local feel.

There are differing opinions floating around on how Glenwood South will change with all the new development, however.

Belt foresees fewer bars opening as property along Glenwood South becomes more expensive. “That’s already happened, there are fewer bars than there were a year ago, and that will continue,” Belt says. But Miller says bars are Glenwood South’s bread and butter. “Bars generate more money being open three days a week than any retail business can generate being open seven days a week,” he says. “So if development drives up rents, it’s not going to drive out bars.”

But residents and business owners seem to agree on a few things They want density and a diverse mix of architectural styles—not just high rises, but not just buildings limited to a few stories either—and they want Glenwood South to stay more independent and less corporate. They also say the City could do more to help maintain Glenwood South and alleviate issues, including requiring soundproofing for new buildings, repairing sidewalks and landscaping the areas around trees which have worn out.

So, is it time to retire the “Gelwood South” moniker and stop joking about annexing the district to outside the Beltline?

“I’ve seen a lot of change,” says Hibernian’s Hanley. “All the new construction, the hotels, shopping and residential, it’s fantastic. I see Glenwood South becoming a true mixed use neighborhood, not just the place you go because there’s the most bars. You’ve got all the bits and pieces. I’m excited for the future.”

Jane Porter

Jane is the editor of Raleigh Magazine. Questions, comments, criticisms/complaints? Email her at jane@raleighmag.com
Jane Porter

Latest posts by Jane Porter (see all)

About Jane Porter 140 Articles
Jane is the editor of Raleigh Magazine. Questions, comments, criticisms/complaints? Email her at jane@raleighmag.com