Expanded outdoor dining a valuable asset
For many residents and those who live in neighboring communities, as well as shoppers and diners, Birmingham is the center of the local universe. Its several-blocks long downtown is a cosmopolitan microcosm of national and regional stores, locally-owned shops whose owners know our names and what we like to purchase, carefully-curated boutiques and designer showplaces. It has movie theaters and parks, and celebratory restaurants.
Over the last couple of decades, Birmingham's development from a quiet small town to an urban oasis didn't just happen – it was carefully managed by local leaders, from city staff to the city commission and planning board and other committees to the Birmingham Shopping District. While there have been hiccups and some longtime residents at time fought changes, to not change is to stagnate and to die. Instead, Birmingham has thrived through the implementation of the 2016 Master Plan which encouraged the enactment of zoning ordinances permitting five-story mixed use buildings, inviting more residents to live, work and recreate in the city.
Another very successful initiative was the enactment of the 2007 bistro ordinance license, as an economic development incentive. Its primary goal was the invigoration of Birmingham's streets and to create greater walkability – after all, Birmingham's tagline became, “A Walkable City.”
Since its inception, the bistro ordinance has been a huge success, doing just what it was intended – it has revitalized the downtown retail area of Birmingham, with their outdoor dining patios 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. 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, with the exception of two additional licenses for establishments which have been in business for at least five years in the city in their same location.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, in an effort to assist businesses and residents who could only eat outdoors, city commissioners wisely approved temporarily allowing restaurants to modify their outdoor dining to allow for greater social distancing, as well as waiving all fees for restaurateurs for outdoor dining and annual liquor license renewals, and permitted them to stay open outdoors during the winter months, with off-season outdoor enclosures. Restaurants were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, and it was wise and wonderful that city leaders were assisting these establishments – and their customers. Several establishments spent thousands of dollars expanding their dining platforms to adjacent storefronts and parking spaces, adding temporary roofing and windows, igloos, heaters and other off-season complements.
As the pandemic eased and residents became vaccinated, local restaurants, particularly at these expanded outdoor patios, thrived. Birmingham hummed. Several other municipalities instituted similar, or even expanded, outdoor dining offerings for patrons, some closing their streets off for only pedestrian traffic. Talk about walkable communities. We would love to see similar street closures on Pierce, Martin and Merrill, for example.
And then Birmingham leaders did something that literally pulled the rug out from restaurants in the middle of their busy outdoor dining season – ending their emergency dining extension on June 30, following the state's opening. Commissioners said it was because they didn't have an ordinance to permit restaurants to expand beyond their original footprint. But they had months to plan for the emergency's end. Diners have many choices in the metro area, and if they can't find a spot on a local patio, they'll find one somewhere else.
And in a move we can only call ass-backwards, only after they forced restaurants to pull apart their carefully built structures, the planning board has now been holding study sessions, and the city is asking residents their thoughts on expanded year-round outdoor dining.
If city staff, leaders and residents want Birmingham to continue to thrive, to be a walkable downtown and for area diners to keep flocking to the restaurants, there is only one prescription: make the downtown as hospitable as possible to people who want to be there.
Take a look at how full the outdoor dining has been, and then open it back up, in a way that benefits restaurateurs, neighboring retailers, residents and visitors.