Birmingham considers easing regulations for year-round outdoor dining

Businesses say their customers don’t want to head back inside

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 28, 2021

 Residents have the chance to weigh in on the city’s  existing outdoor dining regulations online.

Residents have the chance to weigh in on the city’s existing outdoor dining regulations online.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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BIRMINGHAM — As restaurants struggled to stay afloat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in Birmingham tried to toss businesses a life jacket, offering customers dining incentives and allowing establishments to create makeshift dining rooms outdoors in the safety of the open air.

Now that state-mandated pandemic restrictions have ended, the city of Birmingham has planned to return to its normal outdoor dining ordinances come the fall. But businesses say their customers don’t want to head back inside: Outdoor dining is more popular than ever, in all seasons.

In response, the Birmingham Planning Board and the City Commission want to gauge public opinion on the idea of year-round outdoor dining. They’ve created a page on the topic on the community input website Engage Birmingham, and they’d like to receive feedback from residents and businesses about the pros and cons of keeping up those greenhouses, igloos, tents and other structures that were meant to be a temporary fix.

“We are currently working with several restaurants who wish to permanently expand their outdoor dining areas,” Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker said in a prepared statement. “There are abundant outdoor dining options available in Birmingham, and soon we may see a return of some of the expanded dining areas offered during the pandemic, in addition to the potential easing of year-round outdoor dining regulations.”


Rules are rules, but cash is king
Several restaurants expressed to the city an interest to retain their expanded platforms and have already submitted plans to the city to begin the process with a site plan review, design review or special land use permit review required per the zoning ordinance. The option to space out serving sections or enjoy the ambiance of downtown Birmingham has its own perks, some say.

“Last year’s summer was the best summer I remember in Birmingham, even (during) an especially difficult time for everybody,” said Joe Bongiovanni, the operator of several restaurants, including Salvatore Scallopini and Market North End on North Old Woodward Avenue.

“The streets were alive. The colors were great. We had great weather for such a long, extended period of time. It was a real unique situation, and we were lucky to have it,” he said.

Blake George, the co-owner of Adachi restaurant, on South Old Woodward, said he’s concerned about throwing yet another change at his staff and customers after a year of state-imposed occupancy switch-ups.

“There’s a huge demand for outdoor dining, COVID related or not. We see that across (the industry),” said George, noting that his servers and guests have all gotten accustomed to the additional space. “But specifically for these outdoor dining (enclosures) we have now, we’ve had to hurry up and staff up and train people. Now we might have to tell staff, ‘You may not have a job here anymore’ because we don’t have sections for them to serve,” if enclosures are dismantled.


The pandemic was the point
But the plan was always to return to the city’s original site plan and design review process once pandemic conditions had passed.

“The purpose of these facilities was honorable and benefitting the restaurant environment, but the basis was on them having diminished space within their restaurant,” City Manager Tom Markus said during the City Commission’s June 21 meeting.

Some establishments abused the period of waived ordinance restrictions, which officially expired June 31, by seating guests over capacity and adding features not approved by local zoning laws, or even safety standards, he said.

“We have zoning codes, building codes, energy codes that speak to the envelope of the building. Plumbing codes based on calculating square footage of a space. When you pitch a tent outside your building, there’s no way to measure it from a building standpoint,” Planning Board member Bert Koseck said during a City Commission meeting.

Add to that the fact that downtown Birmingham is already short on space for outdoor dining and, even more so, short on parking spaces. The enclosures restaurants have added sometimes jut out into walkways, and platforms occupy nearly three or so parking spaces of the downtown streets.

Those obstacles could also pose a headache for public works staff when it comes time for street sweeping and snow removal. Before the pandemic, the city prohibited any kind of enclosed temporary structure. Unenclosed outdoor dining — the kind with no roof or walls — is currently permitted all year. During the off-season, Nov. 16-March 31, unenclosed outdoor dining is not permitted in the street to allow for snow removal, but it is permitted off-street on public and private property provided that chairs, heaters and tables are brought in each evening so that sidewalks may be cleared of snow and ice.


An argument for evolution
But is all of that reason to abandon year-round outdoor dining, a concept that’s worked well for local merchants?

“I frankly have always found it (the restrictions) odd given the amount of days we actually have snowfall, which are pretty limited,” said City Commissioner Mark Nickita. “I would hate to think we’re creating physical conditions in our downtown that are based on ease of removing snow from our downtown streets for a handful of days out of 365.”

George said he understands the position the city is in, wanting to keep establishments in line with design regulations and zoning codes. But he hopes for a little consideration for the merchants who invested so much time and cash into the COVID-era accommodations.

“I don’t know if one solution is relevant to everybody,” he said, noting that Adachi’s outdoor enclosure doesn’t encroach onto the sidewalk or street. “Maybe there could be different options for different businesses.”

As the city gauges interest in eased year-round outdoor dining regulations, other changes are in the works pertaining to expanded outdoor dining platforms. To learn about those potential changes and share input, visit engage.bhamgov.org. Visitors are encouraged to share their thoughts by Sept. 6, when they’ll be turned over to the Planning Board for review.

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