After months of planning board meetings, joint city meetings, shopping district and building owners meeting with attorneys, it has come down to this reality: the Birmingham City Commission must take over and finally do the heavy lifting that no one else in the city has been willing to do and establish the definition of personal services for retail establishments in the downtown business district’s first floor spaces.
The need to clarify the definition of personal services for first floor spaces, long reserved for retail and restaurants, has arisen because there has been an increase in commercial office space being rented out on first floors and being “interpreted” as personal services – stretching the ordinance, according to Birmingham officials, by stating that ad agencies, marketing firms, real estate offices, web development offices, and others, “could” be for personal use because a person hypothetically “could” walk in off the street and request their services.
The ordinance requiring first floor retail space, has been in place since at least 1996, when the city’s 2016 Master Plan was put into effect. The 2016 Plan has largely been implemented, and with it, Birmingham has indeed become a shopping, entertainment, dining and residential destination. The 2007 bistro ordinance was specifically developed in order to activate the streets to drive diners to stores, and to create vitality and walkability. But some feel that is being threatened, as more offices, notably ad/marketing agencies, web design firms and others increasingly inhabit first floor retail space, and a duel has broken out between city officials and retailers who want to maintain the walkability and retail landscape, and landlords, who say they just want to fill increasing vacancies.
The planning board was tasked with defining personal services – not the need for the ordinance, not what the retail landscape currently is, nor considerations about demands on the parking system. Yet, over the summer months, they misinterpreted their responsibility as more than it was, and ultimately, bounced the issue back into the laps of city commissioners.
The recent joint commission/planning board workshop seemed to clarify that no, that’s not what was asked of them. Commissioners must now clarify the definition, which is an establishment that provides services involving the care of a person or their apparel. We think the definition must include beauty services, dry cleaning, shoe repair, as well as medical, dental and mental health services, which we believe provide more foot traffic for the downtown area than offices and cubicles.
Birmingham is a wonderful, dynamic small city that is going through a cyclical change. Let’s not ruin what has been created for temporary gain.