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  • By Lisa Brody

Bistro seating suggestion not well received

Birmingham city commissioners on Monday, September 17, remained dissatisfied with recommendations from the city's planning board on the number of seats for outdoor dining and decided to make that determination themselves at a meeting in October after they receive a list of all seating at the city's Class C liquor license establishments from planning director Jana Ecker, keeping in effect the current bistro ordinance requirements for the present time.

The city's bistro ordinance was first established in 2007 to create small and intimate establishments in the city's downtown and entice operators to create unique dining operations in Birmingham as an economic incentive to drive walkable traffic to the city's retail community. The ordinance permits no more than 65 interior seats, with no more than 10 of those at a bar, large windows that open out to the street, outdoor dining, and restaurants where food is the focus, not the bar. Each year, two bistro liquor licenses can be given out by the city commission. Applications for the following year must be received by the city by October 1.

Among the ordinance amendments presented to commissioners were not permitting enclosure of the outdoor space for year-round dining any longer, although those who have it, such as Social and Cafe Via are to be grandfathered in; to treat bistros in different districts of the city, such as the Triangle District and the Rail District, differently from the central business district, by permitting 85 indoor seats, rather than 65 seats. Further, railings or planters on outdoor dining platforms can not be any higher than 42-inches tall, and rooftop dining would be permitted as an outdoor use if surrounding properties are not negatively impacted and there is also adequate street level outdoor dining.

As for the number of outdoor dining seats permitted, Ecker said the planning board determined that “the maximum would be the same number of seats as permitted indoors.”

“I am concerned about our Class C restaurants and the high number of competitors,” said mayor pro tem Patty Bordman. “Eighty-five and 85 (seats) is not small and intimate, so I have concerns about these numbers.”

Commissioner Rackeline Hoff agreed. “A hundred and seventy seems like a lot to me, especially in the Rail and Triangle districts, which are near a lot of homes,” she said.

“This is nowhere near the original models we were using when we created (the bistro ordinance),” said commissioner Carroll DeWeese. “Sixty-five has worked.”

“For six months of the year, it's treating these bistros greater than our legacy license holders. I can tell you, as someone, along with commissioner Hoff, who worked on the original ordinance, that was not the intent,” said commissioner Stuart Sherman. “The 65 number was well thought out. I would just say our job is not to protect the legacy license holders but to think of the community as a whole.”

Ecker said the planning board did not want to put a limit on any outdoor seating, and did not feel sending it back to the planning board would be beneficial.

Commissioners requested a list of all Class C establishments and their number of seats, and continued the public hearing until October 8, where they said they would make the determination.

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