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Sunset on outdoor dining recommended

By Kevin Elliott

Birmingham restaurants seeking to extend outdoor dining in the city may face some limitations, as the city looks to expand al fresco eating throughout the year.

Outdoor dining regulations are prescribed under the city’s zoning ordinance, which requires applicants to obtain a special land use permit, subject to site plan review and other conditions. Those conditions regulate furnishings, placement and layout to ensure uniformity throughout the city. However, the city is in the process of updating its outdoor dining regulations, in an effort to expand dining opportunities.

The ordinance update is expected to take several months. Meanwhile, restaurants continue to line up to request expanded outdoor dining permits.

Planning board members last month postponed a review of site plans for The Morrie, 260 N. Old Woodward, which plans to expand outdoor dining to include tables adjacent to the sidewalk in front of the building, as well as adding an on-street dining platform. The Morrie was approved in July 2020 for expanded outdoor dining under the city’s former temporary pandemic dining expansion, which ceased last month.

Kevin Biddison, of Biddison Architecture, said owner Aaron Belen is hoping hoping to keep the current outdoor dining operations intact.

Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker said the city’s review of the site plan indicate the on-street platform should be reduced slightly to meet the current ordinance requirements, to which Biddison was receptive.

Planning board members approved recommending approval by the city commission, but added an extra provision to ensure the plans would be reviewed after the outdoor dining ordinance is updated.

“If you recommend approval, they are good to keep this platform and they are grandfathered in, no matter what – unless you include a sunset clause,” Ecker said.

Conditions on the approval include obtaining an outdoor dining permit from the city; ceasing all outdoor activity at the close of business; complying with all department requests; and recommending the city commission consider a sunset date with the possibility of amendment on a change of ordinance if it occurs, at the advice of the city attorney.

The motion was unanimously approved.

Despite the approval, board member Robin Boyle said the city should be doing more to give restaurant owners better direction while the process moves forward.

“I’m not happy in the way we are not being clear in what we expect businesses to do,” Boyle said. “We have not been clear in our sizing, not clear about what is allowed and what is not allowed, and we aren’t clear about timing.

“It’s a mess. I've walk by this place every Saturday for how many years, and it’s a bit isolated. … It’s a difficult site. The Morrie is almost at the top of a hill. It’s not easy to see it, so I think what the architect is trying to do is bring The Morrie out onto the street, and here we are failing to give any guidance. I don’t think we are doing a good job here, and I’m not sure how to solve it, but the direction we are giving doesn’t bode well for our next conversation,” referring to a study session on outdoor dining.

Board chair Scott Clein agreed that better direction should be given, but noted that the board is in a bind.

“Our ordinance is what it is,” he said. “We have been tasked with stripping it and changing it and doing all those things you just said, but short of the city commission saying, ‘no more decks until we figure it out,’ I don’t know we are in any position other than to be frustrated at what we are faced with. It’s the chicken before the egg, or the horse before the cart, or whatever metaphor you want to use or mix. It’s imperfect and it is what it is.”


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