Prohibition: Birmingham City Council-Style
When convenience stores apply for licenses to sell alcoholic beverages, the fear of expensive court battles often forces the Birmingham City Council to begrudgingly grant permits. On May 10, the Council found criteria that it believes will stand up in court, should they reject a request and face a challenge by the proprietor. The Council voted unanimously to deny a liquor permit to the 6th Avenue North Package Store due to its proximity to the Hope VI Housing Project, which is currently under construction.
The Hope VI Project is designed to create affordable, desirable housing in downtown Birmingham, targeting low-, middle-, and upper-income residents. According to Jim Stanley, an attorney with the city law department, the approval of the package store “might have a negative impact on the next phase of the Hope VI Project.” Stanley explained that the developer “is applying to the Alabama Housing Finance Authority [AHFA] for low-income housing tax credits, and that the location of a liquor store within a certain radius [a half-mile] of the project would have a negative impact on their ability to attain those tax credits.”
A scoring system is used to award such tax credits, and five points can be deducted if liquor stores or other “incompatible uses” are in the vicinity. The five-point deduction “would be fatal to most applications,” Stanley explained, as the tax credit process is highly competitive. The attorney did add that a provision exists that allows the AHFA to exempt a Hope VI Project from the scoring application. He warned, however, that low-income tax credits make up 55 percent of the funding for Phase III of the Hope VI Project, so granting the alcohol license might put the final phase in jeopardy. When pressed by Councilor Roderick Royal, Stanley added that current businesses that sell alcohol could also cause the Hope VI Project to lose points.
The three reasons for denial of an alcohol license include: if the business is causing a nuisance, if it violates zoning regulations, or if the establishment is a detriment to an adjacent neighborhood. Councilor Valerie Abbott summed up the City Council’s hearty embrace of the federal standard presented by attorney Stanley. “We rarely ever get to use [one of the three reasons to deny an alcohol license],” said Abbott. “We finally have a project here that truly meets the criteria. It has circumstances that are clearly detrimental to the adjacent residential neighborhood.”
Councilor Elias Hendricks noted that problems arise when alcohol is sold in the area. “Look at any other place around downtown, or on the fringes of downtown, that sells beer and wine, and see the problems and the traffic that it generates,” urged Hendricks in disgust. The councilor, who is a downtown resident, complained that people congregate to drink outside as they harass people in the neighborhood. “We are trying to help downtown, and we are trying to live in our neighborhood. We deserve to live in our neighborhood and have a decent quality of life. Why go back to what we had before?” he asked.
Two weeks ago Hendricks berated his colleagues and downtown businesses for trying to keep The Furnace, an upscale strip club that is within a half mile of the Hope VI Project, out of the area. The councilor expounded on the importance of opening up downtown Birmingham as a future “entertainment district” in conjunction with the city’s desire for a domed stadium in the area. He expressed no concern about The Furnace’s alcohol sales affecting the area’s quality of life.
Ironically, the attorney for the owner of the 6th Avenue North Package Store is Ferris Ritchey. Ritchey represents The Furnace in its battle with Birmingham city government and recently won a round in court that would allow it to open, despite the Council’s and Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s rejections of the gentleman’s club. “A lot of these concerns that you hear from the people are always speculative concerns,” Ritchey explained to the Council. “And you can’t speculate about what might happen.” &