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  • By Lisa Brody

Consultant requested before more retail decisions

The Birmingham Planning Board held a study session on the retail redline district boundaries at their meeting on Wednesday, May 9, where they determined they would recommend a retail consultant be retained by the city commission before they proceed with more decision-making.

First floor retail has been an ongoing discussion for the city over the last two years, with the city wishing to have a stronger definition of what constitutes retail for ordinance purposes, and building owners, leasing operators and landlords fighting restrictions, feeling the market should determine what goes in first floor spaces in Birmingham.

Since at least 1996 in Birmingham, ordinances have determined that first floor spaces within the redline district in Birmingham had to be retail or services for the public. The primary reason has been to create a walkable downtown, as people do not look in office windows, and offices close in the evenings, so cities with a lot of offices close at night.

On November 13, 2017, the Birmingham City Commission further codified that by approving a definition of personal services for first floor retail space in downtown Birmingham that is an establishment open to the general public engaged in providing services directly to individual consumers, not business-to-business.

The revised ordinance reads: “An establishment that is open to the general public and engaged primarily in providing services directly to individual consumers, including but not limited to, personal care services, services for the care of apparel and other personal items, but not including business to business services, medical, dental and/or mental health services.”

At issue before the planning board for its study session was the further matter of where in the city the ordinance should be in effect. The current redline district goes from Oak and Old Woodward to Lincoln and Old Woodward; Maple Road from Bates to Peabody; and involves side streets that include Merrill, E. Brown, Pierce, E. Bates, Martin and Hamilton streets, for 3.27 linear miles, and encompasses 278 total storefronts.

The planning board had before it the possibility to keep the retail district the same; to change the boundaries by removing buildings not suitable for retail, such as office buildings that cannot be converted to offer retail on the first floor; to have a zone that is downtown core focused; an overlay based zone; and to mixed categories of zoning.

Different zones and categories could permit different permitted uses in their first floor spaces, something landlords have requested, stating there is not a demand for retail. Retailers have disputed that.

Planning board members were of different minds regarding permitted uses in first floor spaces.

“My eye tells me there's not that much demand for retail,” said Daniel Share. “There's a centralized core – stores close and they open. We can incentivize the other areas. Where can we beg, borrow or steal to get someone to tell us what to do?”

“I would have jumped in with the professional to help us sooner,” said Janelle Boyce. “We all have assumptions. I already feel in over my head and would like someone who does this for a living – a consultant. I would also like to talk to building owners and retailers. We should also tell the BSD we're looking for a buy-in.”

“We did send out a blast to the BSD,” said planning director Jana Ecker.

“You usually bring in the consultant first,” noted Stuart Jeffares.

Board members determined they would have another study session on the matter at their meeting on June 13, and then request to have it the number one item on the joint workshop with their board and the city commission on June 18, in order to request a consultant.

“I don't want to put this just on the city manager. I want a buy-in from the city commission. They put this on us,” said Jeffares.

“At the June 18 meeting, I think this has to be project number one,” said Bryan Williams. His fellow board members concurred.

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