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Bistros a city asset that must be protected

Birmingham in 2007 created a bistro liquor ordinance with the goal of invigorating the city'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.

Since its inception, the bistro ordinance has been a huge success, doing just what it was intended – it has helped revitalize the downtown retail area of Birmingham, and their outdoor dining patios are a destination for the metro area. Pedestrian foot traffic increased exponentially following the opening of bistros such as Toast, Townhouse, Luxe, Bella Piatti and numerous others. In fact, the ordinance, the first of its kind, has done so well that other municipalities have mimicked it.

But no one should ever forget that it is, at its roots, a liquor ordinance, which must be approved by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, and was created as an economic incentive tool. Yet, following the February 25 Birmingham City Commission meeting, where renewal of their 2019 liquor license was reviewed for every Class B, Class C and microbrewery license holder in the city, it became clear that many bistro license holders have become not only complacent, but cavalier in their approach to maintaining their license.

Numerous bistros – about 15 – had infractions that caused commissioners to order them back for a public hearing March 25, which will determine whether they retain their liquor licenses for the upcoming year. The renewal date for the liquor control commission is April 1.

At issue for most of the bistros is violations of their special land use permits (SLUPs), which are operating contracts with the city which govern all aspects of their business, from their name, ownership, hours of operation, design of the restaurants to number of seats in the establishment. To change the name of the restaurant or the ownership group necessitates a permit approval before the city commission. Problem is, for many restaurants, they've just gone ahead and done it.

Another big issue is the number of seats. The bistro ordinance is tightly controlled, and there can be no more than 65 seats, inclusive of bar seats, or the Michigan Liquor Control Commission can decide to yank the licenses. Too many bistros, for way too long, have been adding seats and no one from the city had been monitoring them – or holding them accountable.

Finally the commission ordered enforcement of bistro regulations. Just as bistro owners know how to count, so do Class C liquor license owners – the ones who have paid in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for their licenses, rather than $20,000 to operate in the city. Those owners have complained for years about violations of seating restrictions. For too long the city has turned a blind eye to excess interior and exterior seats, Eisenglass enclosures and other “skirting” of the bistro ordinance.

If the city had done its job from the start, perhaps bistros like Bella Piatti, La Strada Caffe, Bistro Joe's, Luxe, Salvatore Scallopini, Forest, Tallulah's and Mad Hatter Bistro would have complied with seating requirements from the beginning, as well as other ordinance requirements.

The bistro ordinance is the city's golden goose. It's imperative that everyone works to protect it.

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