Where is the guidance on outdoor dining?
After nearly a year of studying and analyzing outdoor dining standards, it was startling that when it came time for a public hearing, the Birmingham Planning Board wasn't ready for prime time.
We weren't the only ones positively stunned by their inability to come to a consensus on this decision, which impacts not only the livelihood of the majority of the dining establishments in the city of Birmingham, but the adjacent retailers and businesses, as well. Restaurants are an enormous economic catalyst for the city, bringing in residents and visitors, and are a key reason the city's tag line is “A Walkable City,” and they are desperate for clarity.
Walkability, and enlivening Birmingham's streetscape, was the reason for the development of Birmingham's unique and extremely successful bistro liquor ordinance 15 years ago – one of the requirements is to have outdoor dining along the sidewalk or on a raised dining platform. Since its inception in 2007, the bistro ordinance has been a huge success, doing just what it was intended – it has revitalized the downtown retail area of Birmingham, and the outdoor dining patios are a destination for the metro area.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, in an effort to assist businesses and residents who could only eat outdoors, city commissioners wisely approved temporarily allowing restaurants to modify their outdoor dining to allow for greater social distancing, as well as waiving for restaurateurs the outdoor dining fees and annual liquor license renewal fees, permitting them to stay open outdoors during the winter months, with off-season outdoor enclosures. Several establishments spent thousands of dollars expanding their dining platforms to adjacent storefronts and parking spaces, adding temporary roofing and windows, igloos, heaters and other off-season complements.
And then Birmingham leaders pulled the rug out from restaurants in the middle of their busy outdoor dining season – ending their emergency dining extension on June 30, 2021, forcing restaurants back to their original outdoor dining standards, and instructing the planning board to come up with new outdoor dining standards, including for the “off months” between November and April.
In the meantime, restaurants – from Class C liquor license establishments to bistros and coffee shops – have been requesting added outdoor dining space as the planning board has held study session after study session. And this is all before the city commission reviews the proposed ordinance and gives the final go ahead, or not.
On May 11, the planning board finally held a public hearing, with a vote after, on new proposed outdoor dining rules– and board members could not come to consensus on the details of the ordinance or their last minute concerns that no restaurateurs had attended the sessions, despite proper noticing for all the meetings. Board chair Scott Clein rightly castigated his board for its “self-loathing,” and noted that “I understand people are busy, but so are we.”
We are also troubled that city staff put forth an ordinance with which the board had great issues. Among the concerns, awnings over outdoor dining platforms rather than table umbrellas, which several board members had significant complaints about, along with specifications surrounding the platforms themselves. We expect staff to respond to a board's concerns and interests, as well as to prepare them for ordinance language – particularly after almost a year of review. To have a vote fail, as this one did, is not only disappointing, but should be embarrassing for the city's planning department staff. They either weren't listening at previous meetings, or weren't reading the tea leaves.
The biggest losers, however, moving forward, are the restaurants, who are desperately seeking clarity as to how they should invest in their outdoor dining areas. Outdoor dining is a desirable commodity in downtown Birmingham, and it has the potential to benefit a majority of businesses in the city. It's long overdue to create rules that strengthen the ability of restaurants to survive and thrive, while at the same time respecting neighboring businesses, rather than to just leave the city in a state of confusion.