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  • By Lisa Brody

City panels discuss parking, first floor retail rules

At the annual Birmingham City Commission/Planning Board joint workshop session, held on Monday, June 18, the two boards discussed potential future changes to the residential parking requirement standard in downtown Birmingham as well as possible alterations to the boundaries of the redline shopping district for the first floor retail ordinance.

Planning director Jana Ecker said that changing the city's residential parking standards is “something we've talked about time and time again. Because the parking requirements are so high (two parking spaces for each residential unit in the central business district), it causes large (residential) spaces, and there are higher costs for the upper level units.”

She said the planning board has talked about eliminating the residential parking standards, and have draft language for a new ordinance.

Currently, for new five-story mixed use buildings, the first floor must be retail, the second and third floors commercial, or office, the fourth floor a mixture of commercial and/or residential, and the fifth floor must be residential. Retail and commercial space do not have to provide on-site parking if they are in the parking assessment district – essentially in the central business district – because they pay an assessment for the city's parking structures, where office workers and shoppers park.

Ecker suggested that perhaps there should be something different in downtown “because there are public structures. Most people (living in downtown) use them in the evenings and weekends, when they're emptier.”

Commissioner Mark Nickita asked how the city can anticipate this, if the planning board has been studying it.

“I'm all in favor of lowering the residential parking requirement,” he said. “The amount of parking we have – we know there are cars, and they'll want to go somewhere. Would this alter the office requirement? There's a lot of office and not enough residential, and parking is the driver.”

“I think you have an opportunity to do an either/or or both,” responded city manager Joe Valentine. “You can work with a consultant who would analyze it and then give it to the planning board to study.”

“So you're saying this is the tip of the iceberg?” Nickita asked.

“This is the process that gets you where you want to go,” Valentine said, by having a consultant study parking and land use issues.

Planning board member Robin Boyle disagreed. “Therein lies the problem – they're parking consultants. We're looking at ways to take out space to park cars. It's a conflict of interest. We have to be careful of the advice we seek when we are challenging the industry.”

“The big issue is not only to expand retail but to create a disincentive to more offices and more packed offices,” said commissioner Carroll DeWeese. “I'd like to see the city go to smaller apartments/condos that wouldn't require parking – that would be 800 square feet and they're using Uber. Our parking problems seem to be directly related to more office. How do you keep it so that retail workers can still use it with their reduced incomes.”

“I have a car, my wife has a car, we're still going to have two cars for years to come, and I'm not going to Uber everywhere,” said planning board member Bert Kosceck. Commissioner Patty Bordman agreed.

“Shared parking is a key component. There's a significant number of parking spaces at night, when residential needs it,” Nickita said. “We need to think more freely about daytime/nighttime parking uses. The 2016 Plan says to get more residential downtown.”

“We do not want to solve one problem by creating another one,” commissioner Pierre Boutros said.

It was agreed to hire a parking consultant to study the situation.

Brooks Cowan, assistant planner, showed the group a color-coded map of the redline, or shopping, district's boundaries, with it divided into six different areas, “to determine if there is enough demand for retail in all 3.2 miles of Birmingham's boundaries,” he said.

He noted the highest distribution of retail on Maple, where rents around Maple and Pierce streets are going in the $40-$50 per square foot range, he said, and the ends of Maple Road on either end in the mid-$30s a square foot. He said the next highest concentration of retail is on N. Old Woodward and S. Old Woodward where rents are also in the mid-$30/per square foot. Across from Booth Park, the retail resurgence there, rents are also in the mid-$30 a square foot, while farther north on north N. Old Woodward rents are between $20 and $25 a square foot. He said retail on Hamilton and Willits streets, rents are about $25 a square foot.

He said the planning board feels it does not have enough marketing information and retail information to make recommendations as to what should go where and what the boundaries should be. He asked if there was interest on the part of the city commission to hire a consultant to assist the planning board in making a decision.

“We're working through different levels of analysis – there is no end game,” planning board chair Scott Clein said.

“We clarified that we don't want office in the first floor retail, but that the redline district may not need to stay as it is – a recognition there is very, very high standards at the core, and some other standards on the edge,” said Nickita. “Also, these non-conforming sites that we're requiring to be retail, but they're unusual retail sites because of the way they're built, that's one of the directives. It doesn't seem that difficult to figure out.”

He, and other commissioners, recommended tapping into the knowledge and expertise of Buxton, the retail marketing group working the Birmingham Shopping District (BSD).

“We need to know retail trends four, five, six, seven years in the future, and what those retail trends are and what they're planning,” said planning board member Daniel Share.

Mayor Andy Harris noted they cannot approach Buxton until they create a request for proposal (RFP) to send to them.

“As for where retail is going – I have no problem with drawing up an RFP. Let's move forward,” said city commissioner Stuart Sherman.

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