The Birmingham bistro ordinance, created and implemented in 2007 as an economic catalyst to the city, has been, by all accounts, a huge success, helping to invigorate both the central business district and the N. Old Woodward part of town. But be careful what you wish for – bistros, those charming little restaurants with outdoor patios – have become a victim of their own success. Which is why we are applauding Birmingham city commissioners for not moving forward any of the five recent applicants for bistro licenses, recognizing the value of retail space and the important balance of the two.
It may be hard to imagine today, but in the mid-2000s, downtown Birmingham was experiencing a downturn, with higher vacancy rates and less walkability on the city's streets than city leaders and merchants desired. Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker worked with city leaders to develop the bistro liquor license ordinance, a special land use permit, which is a zoning ordinance tied to a specific property and owner. A chief goal was, and still is, to enliven the streets of the city to the benefit of both dining and retail establishments. The goal is a mix of the two, without a preponderance of bistros, which many feel has happened in the downtown business area.
While a desire remains for bistros in the Rail and Triangle districts, lack of existing buildings and parking have discouraged many applicants.
The bistro ordinance permits the city commission to approve up to two bistro liquor licenses to new businesses in the Central Business District (the downtown area), the Triangle area, or the Rail District, and two licenses to existing businesses each year. In order to receive approval, a bistro must conform to very specific criteria, with no more than 65 seats in the establishment, including no more than 10 seats at a bar. They must have a full service kitchen, and they can offer low-key, but approved, entertainment. There must be outdoor seating, either on the sidewalk or on a raised platform in a parking spot, which is purchased through the city. The bistro must also have windows lining the street, which should be opened up to welcome the city into the restaurant. Currently, bistros include Toast, Townhouse, Elie's, Tallulah's, Bella Piatti, Social Kitchen, Birmingham Sushi, Cafe Via, Luxe, Salvatore Scallopini's, Market North End, La Dolce Caffe, Forest, Bistro Joe's and Mad Hatter.
On April 11, city commissioners wisely recognized that the newly vacant Cosi space would be more valuable to the city as a whole as a retail space, and they passed on one application because it could prove dicey to have four bistros in the hands of one owner. While three new commissioners did back moving a business out of a Pierce Street space in order to put a bistro in, wiser heads prevailed. While some may feel it's up to a free market economy to dictate what goes where, letting the natural economic forces dictate what will succeed, downtown Birmingham should be more than an independent network of rogue landlords – it must be a community working together toward the same goal of improving the city for the benefit of residents, merchants, restaurateurs, visitors, and those working here on a daily basis.
The bistro ordinance continues to be a fantastic economic catalyst tool. It must be utilized wisely.