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Planning Board rejects restaurant at riverfront

By Kevin Elliott


A proposed bistro along the edge of the Rouge River in downtown Birmingham was rejected on Wednesday, April 14, by the city’s planning board, leaving the fate of the potential restaurant up the Birmingham City Commission.


Planning board members lauded the design concept presented for Vinewood Kitchen and Cocktails, 720 N. Old Woodward, during the board’s meeting. Designed by Birmingham-based architects Ron & Roman, the proposed bistro would feature a semi-outdoor Wintergarden and outdoor seating in the rear of the restaurant, adjacent to the Rouge River and parking lot number 6. However, a laundry list of concerns about potential nuisance issues leaves approval highly unlikely.


Vinewood was selected by the Birmingham City Commission in October as one of five bistro applications to move forward to contend for one of two bistro licenses that may be approved each calendar year. In February, the planning board postponed a review, citing concerns with the proposed Wintergarden, deliveries, dumpster configuration, lack of a clear floor plan and comments by city staff.


City p[lanner Nick Dupuis had noted in February that while the proposed Wintergarden is technically located outdoors, in doesn’t entirely meet the conditions of an outdoor dining area. Plans indicate that the area would include drywall and a covered seating area, while the outdoor patio area wouldn’t. Per the city's bistro ordinance, an outdoor patio or outdoor seating is required, with the goal to invigorate sidewalks and streetscapes and encourage walkability.


“Although the space is indeed open to the air, it would likely not be as harshly effected by some of the more tolerable months during the outdoor dining season,” he said. “Furthermore, enforcement of the permitted outdoor dining season (April-October) would be difficult due to the patio and Wintergarden’s placement at the rear and lower level of the building, which is not at all visible from the street, and may not even be evident from any vantage point in parking lot 6,” Dupuis said.


If approved, outdoor dining beyond the prescribed season would require an additional outdoor dining permit, and require the business to move all outdoor tables and chairs inside each evening.


While planning board members praised the design and concept of the bistro, they questioned if it met the bistro ordinance and said it would be a problematic location. Further, they indicated the proposed hours of operation, which were given verbally during the meeting, would need to be scaled back, as it would be open as late as 1 a.m. most nights.


Board members struggled with many of the same questions raised by staff. Further, several residents from the Brookside area, adjacent to the river, strongly opposed the restaurant.


Resident Kristen Tait, who lives on Brookside across from the proposed location, supplied the board with photos of the building at night from her home office. Tait said she was more concerned about the noise that would come from the bistro than any potential light pollution. Other residents also voiced concerns about noise, the potential for flooding in the area and how that could impact the river, and the attraction of wildlife and pests from food service trash.


“I disagree with pushing the downtown into this area,” Tait said about the location. “You’re leaving a rather decaying core at this point, and there are four vacant storefronts in the area owned by the applicant. It’s kind of depressing walking by those in the morning on the way to work. I suggest filling those, rather than trying to fill a parking lot overlooking a dumpster.”


John Roselli, who owns the property next to the proposed bistro location, said he was concerned the layout would be problematic for his tenants, which include two residential condos.


“The current dumpsters can't handle the waste used by the tenants and buildings. I have personally cleaned around those for years,” he said. “There are animals and rodents there already, let alone if we supply restaurant waste and spoils in that area.”


In addition to the opposition due to potential noise and other issues, Vinewood would need right-of-way permission from the city, as the proposed outdoor eating area would encroach into public property.


While planning board member praised the concept of the project, they all concluded the issues raised by residents, a public property conflict, and a general failure to meet the spirit of the city’s bistro ordinance, prompted them to recommend the city commission reject the proposal.


“I do love this project, in a vacuum,” said planning board chair Scott Clein. “I think the idea of dining while overlooking the river would be unique to this community and wonderfully executed by these people and this plan. It’s a matter of the location and it’s a matter of the simple fact that the city would be providing a bistro license, as well as agreeing to the use of public property. … there are so many issues regarding how this interacts with nature, how close it is to nature – we’ve heard about it in a positive way, but there are also negative ramifications.”


Planning board member Robin Boyle said he was able to walk the proposed property prior to the meeting and noted the proposal calls for dining about nine feet from the river. Considering climate change and increased storm intensity, he said the location appears to be problematic.


“I hear tonight that there’s been a modification, but I’m not convinced in any way that this issue has been given the attention that it absolutely deserves,” Boyle said. “I know this is taking us away from the lighting and other concerns, but this is a land planning issue, and there’s nothing more important than these issues on the impact of development on the Rouge River, and vice-versa.”


Planning board member Dan Share said while he praises the concept and design, the spirit of the bistro ordinance is to activate pedestrian pathways.


“Whether or not the pedestrian pathway (here) extends five feet or 30 feet past the property, it’s really not a public pedestrian way. There’s no public access. Nor would the construction of this facility activate the pedestrian way if there is one farther up the street. The topography there doesn’t work that way,” Share said. “I’m inclined because it doesn’t meet the spirit of the ordinance, and the issues of noise, trash and resident conflict with parking next door, are all additional reasons to not recommend approval.”


Board members voted unanimously to forward the issue to the Birmingham City Commission with the recommendation to them that it be denied.

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