City Commission, Planning Board Discuss Bistros, Liquor Licenses
City representatives agree that evaluating Birmingham's liquor license policy is more complicated than expected.
Where is the city moving with its liquor license policy?
That was the question city commissioners and planning board members strove to answer Monday night at a joint meeting with the two boards.
"We are at a critical point in our history where we have to make decisions going forward," commissioner Scott Moore said, noting that evaluating how restaurants contribute to a healthy city should be on all city leaders' minds.
During the meeting, city manager Bob Bruner presented a history of the city's liquor license policies, stretching back to when Birmingham first began issuing the first 16 Class C liquor license in the 1970s. That history includes:
- The first liquor licenses issued by the city were considered "quota" licenses, assigned to them by the state.
- The Michigan Liquor Control Code also allowed additional Class C licenses to be transferred into the community via city commission approval. The Birmingham City Commission didn't allow any transfers until 2007.
- In 2006, Act 501 amended the Liquor Control Code, allowing cities to issue "development district" Class C liquor licenses in addition to its quota licenses. In Birmingham, as with the passage of the 2007 bistro ordinances, these licenses are commonly referred to as bistro licenses.
- Under the city's 2007 bistro ordinance, only two bistro licenses are approved each year. Bistros are defined as having seasonal sidewalk seating, a full-service kitchen and no more than 65 seats.
- In 2007, bistro licenses were given to four existing bistro establishments (Elie's, Salvatore Scallopini, Cosi and Papa Joe's) and nine new restaurants (Forest Grill and Cafe Via in 2007, Toast in 2008, Luxe Bar & Grill and Tallulah Wine Bar in 2009, Bella Piatti and Cole Street Kitchen in 2010 and Churchill's and Townhouse in 2011).
At the last joint meeting of the planning board and city commission, members of the combined boards agreed that the city needed to re-evaluate its bistro approval process, and along those lines, re-consider its liquor license review process as well.
Commissioners and planning board members are now testing out a newly-established bistro review process, in which commissioners pre-screen bistro applicants and send the top choices to the planning board for a full review. As part of the 2012 bistro review, the city commission voted at its Oct. 11 meeting to send proposed bistros Social Kitchen and Market to the Planning Board.
Bruner said as for the city's other directive from the joint session — re-evaluating the liquor license review process — that task has turned out to harder than previously thought. There's dozens of evaluation criteria to consider and much of it is difficult to obtain, he said, such as gross revenues and sales tax information.
There are other criteria to consider when inviting new restaurants to Birmingham as well, Bruner said, from available parking to vacancies near pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and shops.
However, as the city confronts questions of how many bistros is too much and where they should go, planning board member Carol DeWeese said the city should consider how it should continue attracting restauranteurs and small business owners without the added incentive of a bistro license.
One question Bruner did address during his presentation was that of creating a development district — such as the downtown's Principal Shopping District — in the Rail District in order to lower the price of liquor licenses and hopefully attract more restaurants and bistros to the area.
The real problem with the Rail District is parking and available space. Creating a new development district, he said, won't solve anything.
"Creating a development district in the Rail District is solving a problem we don't have," he said.