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Birmingham eyes outdoor dining, parking

By Kevin Elliott

Pleas to relax Birmingham’s outdoor dining requirements to expand opportunities throughout the city during all seasons will be taken up by the city’s planning board, despite pre-pandemic restrictions going back into place on July 1.

The issue came up during a June 14 city commission meeting in which commissioners decided to allow the city’s relaxed outdoor dining regulations to expire on June 30 and allow for pre-COVID restrictions to be re-instated.

At a city commission/planning board workshop meeting on Monday, June 21, Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker said the city ordinance, which was relaxed during the pandemic, prohibits all outdoor dining enclosures in both the outdoor season and off-season. That prohibition applies to all food and drink establishments, regardless of whether they serve alcohol and regardless of type of liquor license. She said outdoor dining isn’t permitted in the street during the off-season to ensure no obstructions for snow removal. Off-season outdoor dining is permitted off-street on both public and private property, with the provision that all furnishings, heaters and other equipment is brought indoors every evening to provide full access for snow removal, with permit approval.

Several restaurant owners and members of the public asked at the June 14 meeting to allow the outdoor dining restrictions to be lifted permanently. The topic was revisited during the joint meeting with members of the city commission and planning board. Planning board members that night received direction from the commission to study existing ordinances related to outdoor dining and revise them to provide expanded opportunities throughout the year.

“The city commission is open to recommendations to changing some of the existing ordinance and conditions to potentially incentivize outdoor dining in more of a 12-month environment, so it doesn’t change so much between the seasons as long as certain conditions are met,” planning board chairman Scott Clein said. “They are open to us talking about places that have decks and/or some form of enclosure, whatever that may mean. But they clearly want the ordinance to regulate and to make sure this ordinance can’t be used to create additional indoor space in a tiny building put up on the sidewalk. I think that was very clear from the commissioners.”

Planning board members at their meeting on Wednesday, June 23, discussed the process and possible timeframe of reviewing and recommending appropriate changes. Planning board member Bryan Williams said it will be important to have participation from local restaurants, including those with existing outdoor dining permissions, bistros and other types of restaurants.

“It’s important that we do this with participation from all three or four types of restaurants that utilize outdoor dining, and we listen to them,” Williams said. “The second thing, I do think it’s important that we go about a little of a discovery program to see how other cities are doing it and how they are doing it.”

Board member Stuart Jeffares said the inquiry should go beyond Oakland County to include other areas of the country that may provide examples of successful ordinances.

Clein said the project should be a priority in order to include it into the city’s next phase of the 2040 Master Plan, which is currently under development. City staff is expected to start the review process, which includes a review of citations and complaints. Plans for the next step in the process will be relayed to the city commission for approval.

Planning commissioners at their June 23 meeting also discussed conducting a review of parking standards in the city, which was also a topic of discussion at the joint meeting on June 21.

Ecker said current standards require no on-site parking for commercial properties in the city’s parking assessment district (PAD), with residential properties required to provide parking. Outside of the parking assessment district, which is primarily in the city's downtown, parking requirements end up dictating uses, form and design of buildings.

Despite the concerns, Clein said the planning board isn’t tasked with reviewing the PAD, rather they will be looking at the parking requirements in the city’s zoning ordinance and the goals and objectives of the city’s master plan, the PAD and best practices.

“We have not been asked, nor will we look at the parking assessment district,” he said. “We are looking at a review of standards and requirements for parking in our ordinance. That hasn’t happened in a long time.”

Planning board member Janelle Boyce said she hopes the process will clear up misinformation often sent out to the public by other residents not fully familiar with the intricacies of the parking issues.

“The information that staff, and maybe a consultant, will bring us will be super helpful not only to us but to the public perception of parking,” Boyce said. “We have been receiving these bits of information, like the document we saw that was part of a joint meeting the other night. I’m not sure where it came from or who compiled it or how much was opinion and how much was truth and factual. Now, it’s kind of being talked about as if it were presented by a professional, with resources that we will otherwise see when staff brings us information,” noting it had not been.

“That sort of clarity will be nice to have, and I hope that the public will tune in and understand where that information comes from in more of a professional background, as opposed to what we received. I was confused by what we received the other night before the meeting until I realized it was email forwards.”


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