Retail decision punted back to planners

Instead of setting a date for a public hearing to finally consider a definition for personal services for first floor retail in downtown Birmingham after months of debating the issue, city commissioners, by a vote of 4-3 on Monday, September 25, sent the issue back to the planning board for further clarification.

The commission was being asked to approve setting Monday, October 16, for a public hearing to make the decision on the definition of personal services in order to amend the definition of commercial uses in the downtown Birmingham for first floor retail usage after deciding at a joint workshop with the planning board on September 18 that they would take control of the issue and make a decision. After months of meetings, study sessions and public hearings, the planning board on August 12 rejected a directive from the commission and city manager Joe Valentine to amend the definition of commercial uses in the downtown Birmingham for first floor retail usage, and instead requested the city commission expedite the development of a citywide master plan in order to resolve the issue, along with other pressing city concerns.

At the September 18 joint workshop, commissioners told planning board members they misunderstood their responsibility, which was not to look at the big picture with the master plan, but to just refine a definition of personal services from the existing ordinance.

Commissioner Stuart Sherman said he wanted a list of businesses from the planning board that would qualify. Planning director Jana Ecker said they were all included in the minutes and working drafts from the planning board. But Sherman, and some other commissioners, wanted more, which Ecker said may necessitate them starting over and delaying the process. Sherman disagreed, saying the information about the uses would clarify how the advantages, or disadvantages of the uses, could be perceived.

The definition of retail in first floor space has been deemed a high priority item by the city commission after several locations have been leased as “quasi-commercial,” referring to ad agencies, marketing firms, real estate companies, and web design firms, among others, that say they could do work for individuals, but are really commercial companies. In a memo, city manager Joe Valentine noted that the current ordinance permits commercial uses as a category of personal services.

“Over the past 10 years, roughly 46 businesses have occupied first floor spaces in the redline retail area under the undefined category of personal services. To assist city staff in the administration of the zoning ordinance and to clarify the intent of the personal services category, a policy directive was given to the planning board to promptly address this issue,” Valentine wrote in his memo to the planning board. “This directive was intended to establish a temporary relief measure while the planning board continues to study the definition of retail as part of its action list that was adopted in July of 2016.”

Ecker explained the redline retail area extends north along Old Woodward to just south of Oak, and south to Lincoln. It goes along Maple from Bates to Peabody, and includes Pierce, Merrill and Willits streets.

Commissioners voted 4-3, with commissioners Mark Nickita, Stuart Sherman, Patti Bordman and Carroll DeWeese voting to move it back to the planning board, and Pierre Boutros, Rackeline Hoff and Andy Harris voting against the motion.

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