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Stay true to city bistro ordinance process

Over the 14 years since Birmingham developed and implemented their bistro liquor license ordinance, it has become not only a runaway success in the city, creating small yet diverse dining establishments which have succeeded in its number one goal – activating the city's streets in order to generate foot traffic in areas where they are, driving people to the local retailers and merchants. In fact, the ordinance is such a success, it is the model of other similar local ordinances that have been developed in the years since Birmingham introduced bistros.


A little backstory: In 2007, Birmingham created a bistro liquor ordinance with the goal of invigorating Birmingham's streets. 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.


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, and 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.


Bistro applications are due annually for the following year by October 1; only if there are no applications for a given year is there a second application round, April 1.


At a city commission meeting following the October application date, applications which follow all the appropriate guidelines, as determined by the planning department, are invited to give a five minute “hit the bases” presentation of what their concept is, menu ideas, design, financing ability, and similar highlights. It is then the commission's responsibility to determine which bistros – the maximum of two – to move on to the planning board for full site plan, design and special land use permit approvals before coming back to the commission for final approvals.


Until this year.


On October 26, 2020, six bistro applicants for a 2021 bistro ordinance license, one of which was for an existing establishment, came before the city commission – and the commission punted. Unable to prioritize one over the other – or even lead and determine that one, Vinewood Kitchen & Cocktails, did not even meet the criteria in the bistro ordinance but “intrigued” one of the commissioners, or that the existing bistro, Whistle Stop Diner, is not open for dinner, a requirement of the ordinance – they voted to move all six forward to the planning board, to force them to make the decision.


Then in April, planning director Jana Ecker permitted three new applicants to come before the commission, one of which, for existing establishment, Commonwealth Cafe, commissioners voted to move to planning.


Besides a lack of leadership on the part of the city commissioners, who are required to understand the ordinances they are voting on, it creates another conundrum.


Bistro applications do not come before the city's planning board all at once, so the first to the trough, in essence, is the first one fed. Vinewood Kitchen & Cocktails was the first to come before the planning board, but the planning board in its wisdom did not recommend its approval by the city commission, and they pulled their application at the last minute before it went to the commission. Two other applicants, Bloom Birmingham, a high end vegan restaurant, and Sushi Japan, an Asian restaurant featuring primarily Chinese food, both received recommended approvals from the planning board. If the city commission approves them in coming weeks, that's it for the 2021 year – even if they are not the best bistro choices for the city.


The other issue was staff accepting, and presenting, applications in April. It was another unprecedented move, and one Ecker knows she should not have allowed. Applicants should have been told to apply in October for a 2022 license, as in years past.


Whether from staff, the mayor, or the entire city commission, there must be coordination and an understanding of the functions of their roles and the ordinances, or businesses and residents will face a quagmire that will take a long while to unravel.

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