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Issues remain as outdoor dining is examined

By Grace Lovins


Continuing a year’s worth of work, the Birmingham Planning Board revisited its outdoor dining ordinance again at a study session at its meeting on Wednesday, July 13.


The board revisited changes to the ordinance, including a definition of furnishing zones that would allow a little more flexibility for outdoor dining, as well as the grandfathering of pre-existing outdoor dining areas that would be considered non-compliant after the ordinance has officially been adopted.


Members of the board discussed the possibility of including the ability of furnishing zones to hold an outdoor dining area, but most were conflicted about the parameters of what a furnishing zone should be defined as. A furnishing zone is described as the area between the sidewalk and the curb where streetscape amenities such as planter boxes, street lights and tree wells are typically located. A previous ordinance revision had determined no outdoor dining would be allowed in furnishing zones.


Given the approval of Wilders bistro’s outdoor dining platform by the board earlier in the same meeting, board member Bryan Williams noted his disapproval for the current language of the ordinance.


“If hypothetically we get in a situation where the city commission has turned down a deck in the street and we were then forcing a project that we approved to have a deck in the street back onto the sidewalk, we wouldn’t want a deck in the area next to the building. … I don’t necessarily like the language where we are with this,” said Williams, referencing the Wilders bistro proposal, which approved a deck on N. Old Woodward in one parking spot as well as an adjacent area.


The conversation on furnishing zones transitioned into whether outdoor dining should not be allowed against the building, or if the minimum width of the sidewalk with an outdoor dining area should be slightly expanded.


Board member Daniel Share noted that, if the ordinance were to include a minimum width for the sidewalk around a business that has an outdoor dining area, that likely there could not be a single number for the minimum width that would work in all parts of town. Following Share’s comment, member Janelle Whipple-Boyce proposed that the ordinance should differentiate between downtown Birmingham and the rest of the city.


John Henke, a Birmingham attorney and past representative to Birmingham restaurants, began public comments by expressing his contempt for the sunset provision, or grandfathering of existing outdoor dining areas found throughout the city.


“The sunset provision is a terrible idea. A couple of reasons why: One, if you set a particular date for this, a quick run of the restaurants would require at the expiration of the sunset new special land use permit approvals for each one of those bistros that are now non-compliant, that would not be grandfathered in,” Henke said. “A quick run of those numbers would be 25 of the 50 restaurants would have to go through all new [special land use permit] processing. … On average right now that is running anywhere from two to nine months, plus the added cost to each one of the applicants to do that.”


James Hayosh, co-owner of Commonwealth Café, commented on the push to define or categorize specific spaces with such a diversity of buildings and sidewalk availability throughout the city.


“Every place that I was trying to think of over the last hour, everything is unique, every furnishing space is different. … From the resident and patron perspective, everyone wants something unique. Nobody wants the same thing with a different menu halfway down the block,” Hayosh said.


Dupuis referred to comments that the board has not done enough to engage restaurateurs, remarking that local restaurant owners just aren’t turning out, with efforts to try and engage or discuss the ordinance with business owners proving ineffective. He also pointed out that the board should not be concerned with micromanaging certain details of the ordinance such as umbrella or awning sizes.


“If you’re going to have me going out and measuring pitch and supporting numbers and the heights and the balances and the materials, I don’t think that’s a great idea,” Dupuis said.


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