Target new bistros for city Rail District

April 1, 2017

In 2007 the city of Birmingham developed and passed a unique ordinance, the bistro liquor license ordinance, as an economic catalyst for the city. The goal of the bistro ordinance was to invigorate the downtown, create greater walkability by having colorful umbrellas over outdoor dining tables on downtown sidewalks, which would lead diners and shoppers into stores. The ordinance has been, by all accounts, a huge success, helping to invigorate both the central business district and the N. Old Woodward part of town.

Actually, downtown Birmingham, and the area leading into it on N. Old Woodward, are quite saturated with restaurants and bistros, from fast casual spots to fine dining establishments. While there has been some turnover of dining locations, as is natural anywhere, the plethora of bistros and restaurants with traditional liquor licenses – from steakhouses like Cameron’s, Hyde Park and Fleming’s, to smaller spots like Cafe Via, Streetside Seafood, Toast, Social, Luxe, Market, Townhouse, Bella Piatti, and so many others are evidence of the success of the bistro ordinance. 

As a matter of fact, in 2011, the Birmingham Shopping District (BSD) conducted a thorough review of the bistro license concept, including type, scale, condition, location and impact, both positive and negative, that bistros have had on the city. At the time, they were pleased with the benefits to the downtown area that bistros had brought. However, many were concerned that a saturation point had been reached. 

It’s time to share the wealth – literally. No one, from city commissioners, city staff, restaurateurs to merchants and those proposing bistros, should forget that the bistro ordinance is, and must remain, a tool to revitalize and sustain areas of the city. This past October, city commissioners reviewed and passed along to be developed three conceptual plans for 2017 bistro licenses, two of which are located in the city’s Rail District, Lincoln Yard and a bistro within the new Whole Foods. The third is on Old Woodward at Brown, an Asian fusion restaurant for the Victorian mansion. All three have passed the planning board’s recommendations, and will return to the city commission for final approvals sometime in April. However, the city, by ordinance, can only approve two per year.

The commission does have a possible alternate option for Whole Foods, which technically does not fit the criteria of the bistro ordinance. The commission could approve an economic development liquor license for Whole Foods – which it has also sought – for a project that has improved a site by at least 500 percent. At a recent meeting, commissioners said they did not want to move “the economic development corridor” from Woodward. But they have before, for All Seasons Birmingham, which, like Whole Foods, is on E. Maple. It was a wise move then; it would be a wise move now.

Barring that, we believe the most efficacious determination of which applicants should have the coveted bistro licenses are the two in the Rail District. They will spur greater economic development, walkability in the Rail District area, and create greater vitality in this specific area of the city.

Aside from the fact that we agree with those who think the downtown area has reached a tipping point in terms of the number of restaurants, we also have concerns about the Adachi bistro proposal for the Ford-Peabody mansion on Old Woodward. While the proposal is enticing, this is a historic site that has be altered to become a restaurant. If it doesn’t succeed in a crowded marketplace, the building will be forever changed, the antithesis of historic preservation.

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