Birmingham is enjoying a problem many other communities would love to have – an extreme shortage of parking caused by nearly full occupancy rates for retail and commercial space. Shoppers, restaurant diners and office workers engage in almost hand-to-hand combat over precious parking spaces not only on the street at meters, but at increasingly hard-to-get spots in the city's parking structures.
City officials recognize there is a parking crisis, both real and perceived. An Ad Hoc Parking Study Committee recently completed its work, finding that there is technically an overall surplus of parking spots in the city, but significant parking shortages in both the downtown area and the Triangle District where they are needed most. The city commission is in the midst of creating an Ad Hoc Parking Steering Committee to determine how to move forward with the city's parking shortages. They are moving forward to add two floors to the Pierce Street parking structure in the center of downtown. There are also recommendations to create a parking structure, coupled with residential, commercial and retail, around the surface lot on Willits Street adjacent to the N. Old Woodward Street parking structure. Down the road, two parking structures will need to be constructed in the Triangle District to encourage development in that area of the city, east of Woodward, west of Adams, between Maple and Lincoln, and commissioners recently approved a taxing authority to set aside money to fund them.
Paul O'Meara, the city's engineer, asserts that the city is not short of parking; it's just in other areas of the city. Need a parking spot? Head south of the central business district, near the 555 Building, and there is more availability. But for most shoppers and restaurant diners, the reality is, they can circle Maple and Old Woodward for quite a while without success. Some will leave the city for shopping areas with easier accessibility.
Convenience of patrons, whether real or perceived, must be the watchword of city leaders.
Which leads us to the issue of dining platforms on the city's streets, which were designed and incorporated into the city's 2007 bistro ordinance to invigorate pedestrian traffic, which they have done successfully. On the opposite hand, they have – and continue to – eat up coveted parking spots on the most desirable downtown streets.
On Pierce Street alone, Elie's, Streetside Seafood and Townhouse have enjoyed great success with outdoor dining platforms. Recently, Birmingham's city commission granted Toast two additional parking spots for a dining platform in addition to its outdoor sidewalk seating. Retailers were extremely unhappy, noting that those spots represent $35,000 each a day in retail traffic. Yet, Toast felt it could not compete without the additional outdoor seating.
Zack Sklar similarly fought for outdoor dining platforms for his two new restaurants, Au Cochon and Arthur Avenue, to be located at the Palladium, although there will be sidewalk dining. Yet, commissioners said no more to dining platforms on Old Woodward, noting traffic problems and parking difficulties.
We concur, and believe the commission should take it a step further, and put a complete moratorium on outdoor dining platforms which utilize parking spaces, until the city comes to a final resolution on parking. Yes, the bistro ordinance requires outdoor dining. But the city commission has not truly followed the spirit or the letter of the bistro ordinance in quite a while. Bistros licenses were designed to be extinguished as owners and operators ceased their operations, in order to allow new ideas to flourish, and to expressly not sell and transfer them. However, several have been sold and transferred. They were designed to have no more than 65 seats. Yet, creative owners have clearly stretched those definitions, as the “outdoor” seating with plastic at Social, Market and Cafe Via have evidenced. They were also established as economic generators, in order to specifically target areas of the city which needed new vitality. Commissioners also stated that they would not just move forward with ideas just to placate a number. Yet, some very flimsy and unsustainable bistro concepts have been approved to move forward, in what appears to be an effort to be friendly rather than visionary.
So we think for the time being that no more dining platforms should be added to the city landscape until the parking problem is finally resolved. While at first it may seem that the loss of only a couple of parking spaces per platform is not that great, but under the current circumstances, we will support the position of those merchants who struggle each day for every space near their store that they can preserve.