Hotel dining platform okayed with reservations
By Kevin Elliott
Plans to construct an outdoor dining platform at the Rugby Grille, 100 Townsend, were approved by the Birmingham City Commission on Monday, April 25, but a forthcoming ordinance change may require changes to the platform this summer.
Commissioners approved the special land use permit to allow for a covered, 16-seat outdoor dining deck, which is on public property. The deck is in addition to an existing sidewalk dining deck, with a five-foot walkway on the sidewalk between the two platforms for pedestrians. Commissioners voted 5-2 to approve the special land use permit, with commissioners Clinton Baller and Andrew Haig voting against the approval.
Baller said he had several concerns with the proposed platform, including the amount of public space – parking spots and portions of the sidewalk – that the additional platform would utilize, as well as a list of unknown variables that the city should solidify in terms of policy.
“My recollection is that we agreed to put these decks in the street to accommodate outdoor dining when there wasn’t room on the site for outdoor dining. Where there wasn’t private property or room on the sidewalk, so we said ‘let’s give them some space in the street,’” Baller said. “I see this would double the amount of space that The Townsend has for outdoor dining, and the existing outdoor dining encroaches onto public property. They also take up a certain amount of street for valet parking, at least two spaces on Townsend and Merrill… so we are giving a significant amount of public property to The Townshend already, and this would increase that, for a purpose that the public seems to like and want: outdoor dining. Yet, I note there is a restaurant across the street that doesn’t have any existing outdoor dining, and took full advantage last year and put out a large deck and is likely to come before us again. How many parking spaces are on that street?”
Baller, who was referring to Bella Piattil, said there are still other restaurants that will likely want outdoor dining, with dining decks taking up much of the parking.
Haig, who also opposed approval of the dining platform, said he would like to see restaurants remain within the approval criteria, after approval is given by the commission.
“If you go one inch outside that line, I expect code enforcement to write some nasty fines,” Haig said. “I’m going to give some advice to future applicants: we are going to give you parameters. Stay within them, don’t step outside. Let’s enjoy within that but don’t encroach upon others because a five-foot clearance is a pain if you have a stroller or especially a wheelchair to try to jam through a gap. They don’t shrink just because you decided to grow. You can’t get through.”
Baller also questioned how long the approval of the special use permit would be in effect, particularly in relation to a revised outdoor dining ordinance the city is contemplating, which isn’t expected to allow covered dining platforms.
Birmingham City Manage Tom Markus said the special land use permit language before the commission would require the Rugby Grille to remove the covered portion of the platform if the new ordinance doesn’t permit awning or roofs covers.
Birmingham City Attorney Mary Kucharek concurred, saying the applicant would have to conform to any amendment or changes to the law.
Markus questioned why the planning board would approve a site plan for covered outdoor dining when the proposed ordinance doesn’t allow for roofs.
Planning Director Nick Dupuis said the current ordinance “doesn’t preclude roof structures,” but the draft ordinance being considered by the city doesn’t allow for structures with roofs. Markus explained that the special land use permit being considered includes language that would require the Rugby Grille to be in compliance of the new outdoor dining ordinance when approved, meaning it’s likely the roof would need to be removed.
Representatives with the Rugby Grille said on Monday they weren’t aware of the condition in the special land use permit. Further, the roof structure of the platform is likely to cost about $30,000. To accommodate the applicant, the city agreed to allow them to use umbrellas instead of a roof, as is proposed in the ordinance being considered by the city.
Mayor Therese Longe questioned how many parking spaces would be used by the platform and existing valet areas, to which staff was unsure. Staff also noted that The Townsend/Rugby Grille doesn’t have a current lease agreement with the city for all the spaces. Updating the number of spaces and lease agreement for those spaces was included as a special condition of the permit.
Birmingham resident Paul Reagan said he agreed with Baller’s interest in delaying or opposing the approval until unknown variables could be determined.
“You’re setting policy on sensitive issues in a one-off manner,” Reagan said.