In light of recent police incidents inside and outside several downtown Birmingham bars, the city is trying to figure out how it can work to prevent these problems in the future.
To do that, Birmingham is considering several options for more closely monitoring the city's liquor licenses and the businesses that have them.
At the Monday night meeting of the Birmingham City Commission, City Manager Bob Bruner said the move was spurred by several unrelated public safety incidents on April 1-2. These incidents include a gun being discharged on South Old Woodward during a fight after South Bar's closing time, as well as fights at Chen Chow and the Hamilton Room.
After increasing police patrols and instructing South, Chen Chow and the Hamilton Room to shut down valet service early, the city announced it would be investigating short-term public safety concerns and long-term public policy issues regarding Birmingham businesses with liquor licenses.
At the Monday night meeting, Bruner discussed the five options on the table for better monitoring businesses with liquor licenses:
- Require a contract: The first option would be to amend the city code so that a contract is required for all businesses with liquor licenses. This would be similar to the contract required for those operating with a bistro license. A contract could also be required for uses associated with alcohol (see below).
- Amend zoning ordinance for uses associated with alcohol: The second option would be to amend the city's zoning ordinance so that it would specifically define and prohibit certain uses associated with alcohol sales — such as running a nightclub, for example — particularly if they are deemed detrimental to the surrounding neighborhood. Crafting a good definition of "alcoholic beverage sales," as well any associated uses, would be crucial to this strategy, Bruner said, and would require additional legal research.
- Require a SLUP for uses associated with alcohol: A third option would be to require a Special Land Use Permit (SLUP) for certain uses associated with alcohol sales, such as being a nightclub. This would also involve defining "alcoholic beverage sales." A SLUP request must go before the City Commission before a business is approved.
- Require a SLUP based on size: Alternatively, the city could require a SLUP for all businesses with a floor area greater than a certain size. A similar provision already exists in the Rail District, where a SLUP is required for businesses greater than 6,000 square feet.
- Require a SLUP for all alcoholic beverage sales: A final, more broad option would be to require a SLUP for all establishments that wanted to sell alcohol, regardless of the specific use or total floor area. Bruner said this being the broadest option, it was also the option most likely to have unintended consequences.
Commissioner cautious about harming current businesses
According to Bruner, should any options be adopted, they would not likely impact existing businesses, only new businesses.
Still, commissioners cautioned Bruner about pursuing any options that could penalize existing businesses, particularly ones that don't have problems with the police.
"I don't want to penalize our existing restaurateurs," Commissioner Rackeline Hoff said. "I can't remember anything as significant as what's been happening in recent years. Most operations are handled relatively well. Sure, there's going to be problems, but that's to be expected."
Susan Peabody, owner of Peabody's Restaurant, said she was concerned that if the City Commission made it more difficult to obtain a Birmingham liquor license, current licenses would then be devalued.
Commissioner Tom McDaniel said he wasn't sure how requiring a contract will solve many of the problems. "I don't think a contract will help us very much in regulating patron behavior, particularly after they leave the establishment and that's where we're having the problems," he said. "The problem really is use."
Commissioner Scott Moore stressed the need for clear definitions. "I have said from the very beginning that the term nightclubs has been, in some ways, misapplied here," he said. "We don't have nightclubs, from my perspective, in Birmingham. We have something else going on here. We need to truly define what we mean by nightclubs."
Mayor Mark Nickita said he believed the commission didn't have enough information to make any kind of decision Monday, but urged the city to move forward on its research as it whittles down the options and figure out what makes the best sense.
"I don't think we have enough right now to make a direct move," he said. "But I think it's a very important exercise to start with."
Bruner said the city will continue researching various options and solicit input from business owners. Should a change to the city's zoning ordinance be on the table, the issue would go before the Planning Board. Otherwise any changes would require a public hearing in front of the City Commission.
For more discussion on public safety in Birmingham, visit A Community Discussion on Public Safety in Birmingham.