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  • By Lisa Brody

Zoning changes for bistros sent back to planning

Zoning changes to the Birmingham bistro ordinance recommended by the city's planning board at an April meeting were not taken up by the city commission at their meeting on Monday, May 14, and instead returned to the planning board for further work.

In 2007, the city created a bistro liquor ordinance with the goal of invigorating Birmingham's streets and creating greater walkability. The current ordinance permits unique restaurants to obtain a liquor license if they have no more than 65 seats, including 10 at the bar, and low key entertainment only. The bistro regulations adopted also included requirements for storefront glazing, seating along the storefront windows, and a requirement for outdoor dining. The city commission approves the concept for each bistro license to be given out, with no more than two bistro licenses approved each year.

The city commission had prioritized changes in the bistro ordinance at last year's city commission/planning board workshop, and the planning board unanimously recommended changes to no longer permit year-round enclosures of outdoor spaces, notably with Eisenglass. Planning director Matt Baka noted that in the last 11 years, “new applicants have sought creative ways to increase the number of seats through the use of all season outdoor dining, and the board did not want that permitted.” He note it not only increases the number of seats for the restaurant as a whole for a majority of the year, but it also increases the parking demand in the downtown area, which is already taxed.

“Parking in the downtown area, restaurants provide 14 times a retail use,” Baka said. He said the board proposed allowing more interior seats in the Triangle and Rail districts, permitting 15 seats at a bar and adding 20 more interior seats, for a total of 85 seats in those districts.

Baka also said the board recommended a maximum height at outdoor dining decks at 42-inches for railings or planters. “They shouldn't be isolating themselves by being too high – it goes against intent,” he said.

“When we sent this to planning, one of our priorities was rooftop dining, because there had been an applicant, Lincoln Yards (for the Rail District), that had so much rooftop and back dining that it was becoming a full-fledged restaurant, not a bistro,” said mayor pro tem Patty Bordman. “It seems to me that if one of our problems was rooftop dining, then it needed to be addressed.”

“This is one of my issues, too,” concurred commissioners Mark Nickita. “It's about the bistros being treated like full-fledged restaurants. It's one of the ways to keep bistros, bistros. That's one of our issues, so if you have a site that could have rooftop dining, you could have a restaurant with 300, 400 seats.”

“I think that's why they wanted to get rid of year-round enclosures. They wanted to give them a little leeway,” said planning director Jana Ecker.

Nickita noted Lincoln Yards did not get approved was because it had too many seats – but not year-round enclosures.

“There was a gap, and it wasn't addressed,” Nickita said.

“They (planning board) felt it could be addressed by a SLUP,” Ecker responded. “They didn't want to limit the number of outdoor seats.”

“So it could be 300 or 400 seats five months of the year?” commissioner Rackeline Hoff asked.

“Yes, that is what they intended,” Ecker said.

Nickita said the seating issue was a problem for him, as it was a specific request from the commission to the planning board, and other commissioners concurred, as was the request to address rooftop dining.

“When you put seats on the roof, it doesn't activate the streets,” pointed out commissioner Carroll DeWeese. “I'd like this to go back to be reconsidered. The more fundamental issue is size.”

Commissioners took no action, sending it back to the planning board to revise.

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