Birmingham city commissioners on Monday, December 3, approved an amendment update revising the city's bistro ordinance to establish a maximum of 65 seats indoors as well as 65 outdoor seats at bistros in the central business district, as well as the Triangle and Rail districts.
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, as well as having outdoor dining deck railings no higher than 42 inches.
Planning director Jana Ecker noted the city commission had looked at all of the amendments to the city's bistro ordinance, and did approve the majority, “and the only one left was the definition of seating in the Rail andTriangle districts and in the overlay district (downtown).” She said the planning board had not wanted to put a hard number on outdoor seating, but after direction from the commission, they put a hard cap of 65 seats outdoors in the central business districts, “and in the Rail and Triangle districts, where they felt there needed a greater incentive to locate there, and there's greater parking, they recommended 85 seats indoor and 85 seats outdoor.”
“If you have 85 and 85 – that's 170 – that overlaps with our Class C (liquor licenses),” said commissioner Carroll DeWeese. “The reason I think the bistros are successful and the size and intimacy, and why we established them. Some of our Class C have been too large and not successful.”
“The average size for our bistros are 98.7 seats, and the average for the Class C, are 213.3 seats,” Ecker said, noting the average of indoor and outdoor seating. “Right now, the Class C's are double the bistros.”
“We have an ordinance that was established to incentivize activity in our core area, to create intimate dining experiences,” said mayor Patty Bordman. “When you increase seats, you have a lessened perception of intimacy, which defeats the purpose. Restaurateurs that have expressed desire to have more and more seats – that's what Class C licenses are for. I don't think we should increase the size for the Triangle and Rail. I think we should keep it the same. We shouldn't deviate in size, but keep it intimate in size.”
After concerns from some commissioners that there needed to be an incentive for restaurateurs to go into the Rail and Triangle districts, commissioner Mark Nickita said, “I'm convinced it's not the size – it's the physical condition of the places in the district. If anyone has been to Mabel Gray or Grey Ghost, or Whistle Stop on a Saturday morning. I'm concerned about abandoning our standards. At the time, our intention was that outdoor dining was supplemental – not to double or triple their seating. I think we need to put a cap on it.
“I'm supportive of 65 seats, indoors in all three areas,” he continued, “and outdoor, I'd put a max in all three areas, and identify properties in those districts and point out spaces that can be broken up and a bistro can be put in part of it.”
Commissioners voted 5-2 to approve the ordinance, with commissioners Rackeline Hoff and Pierre Boutros voting against.