Outdoor dining restrictions to be reinstated
By Kevin Elliott
Outdoor dining restrictions lifted by Birmingham officials for restaurants struggling during the pandemic will be reinstated on July 1 as state limits on the indoor dining capacity are lifted, after Birmingham city commissioners took no action on the the temporary COVID-19 off-season outdoor dining standards at their meeting on Monday, June 14.
As part of the city’s efforts to assist those suffering economic hardships from the pandemic, commissioners in May 2020 approved temporary COVID-19 off-season outdoor dining standards that allowed businesses to erect dining platforms on city property without charge and without following standardized dining platform rules. That resolution is set to expire on June 30.
In addition to the outdoor dining standards, the city allowed for additional measures, including relief grants used to purchase outdoor heaters, propane tanks, disinfectant, greenhouses, an igloo and other equipment. The city also allowed restaurant owners to store such items outside. Likewise, restaurants that have encroached into the public domain – such as sidewalks and yellow-curbed areas – have been allowed to operate free from enforcement of such issues.
Temporary standards allowed restaurants to expand outdoor dining by up to 200 percent of previously approved area; extend their dining area to no more than 50 percent of neighboring storefronts not used for food and/drink establishments; utilizing adjacent outdoor property not previously permitted.
Commissioners discussed the matter with input from the public, including several residents and business owners who have been impacted by the dining standards.
Birmingham resident Jennifer Hammond asked commissioners to keep the current standards in place to allow for greater outdoor dining opportunities.
“If you haven’t noticed the recent vibration that has returned to our streets, I guess you haven’t been out since the COVID restrictions have been lifted,” she said. “Not only are these outdoor dining venues providing a lovely scene for residents and others seeking a change of scenery and fresh air for lunch or dinner, but it also creates an unmatched sense of safety for those who have been locked in their homes for the better part of 16 months due to COVID.”
Birmingham property owners Ted and Dulce Fuller said it isn’t fair to other businesses to allow restaurants to continue to encroach on other store frontages for an extended period. Rather, they asked commissioners to revert to the previous standards.
David Klein, owner and operator of the David Klein Gallery, 163 Townsend, told commissioners his storefront has been obscured for eight months, limiting the curb appeal of the art gallery.
Other members of the public and business community spoke in favor of extending the temporary standards through September or longer.
Joe Bongiovanni, operator of Market North End, 474 N. Old Woodward, said the current standards, or lack of standards, has allowed restaurants to pivot in new directions in order to meet customer needs. Taking such measures away now, he said, would be difficult.
Attorney John Henke, who chairs Birmingham’s Design Review Board, said it’s imperative for restaurants to continue the current standards to help recover from the pandemic’s economic impact.
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus said enforcement of outdoor dining standards has been non-existent. As a result, there are areas throughout the city that have obscured pedestrian sidewalks to the point where it is problematic for walkers. Propane storage tanks, signage, tables and other obstructions create both an eyesore and safety hazard.
City Commissioner Stuart Sherman said, “Anytime you give something and try to get it back, there is a considerable pushback, especially in some cases where what was given was taken to the nth degree,” about taking back the leeway given to dining platforms. “We have structures that were built that blocked meters. We have structures that look like they were hunting blinds. And while taking down roofs and walls takes care of some of those issues, I don’t know how that is going to take care of the issue of ADA compliance.”
Reverting to pre-COVID standards will still allow for outdoor dining for those restaurants that have been permitted by the city.
Commissioners voted 5-2 to take no action, thus letting the current temporary standards expire on June 30. Commissioner Mark Nickita and mayor Pierre Boutros voted against the motion.