Walk into Birdsong Brewery on any given night, and you’ll see a room full of beer tanks, a large stack of kegs, and a taproom brimming with after-work drinkers, their friends and their dogs.
It can be a tight fit.
As Birdsong celebrates its 2 1/2-year anniversary this month, the small brewery and taproom on North Davidson Street is looking to move to a larger location. Its 4,600-square-foot space once seemed huge, said Chris Goulet, one of the managing partners – but now that his team is producing three times the amount of beer it once was, there isn’t enough room.
They need a bigger spot. But for a brewery in Charlotte, finding one isn’t easy.
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Under current zoning regulations, any nightspot that doesn’t serve food – such as many of Charlotte’s local breweries – is categorized as a nightclub by the city. It requires them to be at least 400 feet away from homes, keeping them from expanding in popular areas such as NoDa and Elizabeth.
“The city pretty much requires that we leave the neighborhood,” Goulet said, “or leave the city.”
An amendment before the Charlotte City Council aims to make finding a new location easier for craft brewers. It would set new standards for businesses such as family-friendly restaurants and taprooms that differ from those for noisier late-night establishments, such as nightclubs. That allows the calmer venues to expand into the heart of residential areas, while keeping nightclubs farther away.
Some neighborhoods have voiced concern over letting too many venues close to their homes. After months of meetings, city leaders say they’ve compromised, incorporating residents’ input into a final version of the amendment that balances their interests with what the businesses want.
The amendment is three years in the making. As Charlotte’s craft brewery scene continues to grow, taproom owners say the regulation is hindering their expansion into the city that prides itself on its local beers.
“Charlotte’s really focused on trying to support businesses that are beneficial for residents but also draw in visitors from around the country, and I’m confident craft breweries fit that mold,” Goulet said in a meeting before the City Council earlier this month. “We just want to serve some beers and close early.”
A growing industry
Until five years ago, Charlotte didn’t have a single craft brewery within city limits.
Then in early 2009, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery opened its doors just south of South End, and despite the economic crisis, it – and the industry – has been growing steadily since. This summer, Olde Meck will move into a new, larger location a tenth of a mile away, once again leading the way for other breweries in the city that are facing more demand than they can meet in their current spots.
The Charlotte area has nine local craft breweries in operation, with three more slated to open soon.
Nationwide, the growth has been the same. By the end of last year, craft beer had become a nearly $15 billion industry, one that continues to rise even as the overall beer industry is declining.
“Charlotte’s becoming a beer town,” said Daniel Hartis, who runs the popular blog charlottebeer.com. “It’s thriving.”
Hartis said there’s no way to measure which city brewery is the most popular, but some have grown faster than others. NoDa Brewery, he said, is one he’s watched expand tremendously.
NoDa Brewery sits beside Birdsong on North Davidson, and it’s also looking for a larger warehouse to relocate. “We just need a little bit more room for everything,” said Todd Ford, who co-owns the brewery with his wife.
But NoDa is in the same situation as Birdsong. As it stands, the zoning regulation is largely unenforceable, said Russell Fergusson, an attorney who’s been working with the breweries on the amendment. But it’s upheld for new and expanding businesses, he said.
Ford said there are two spaces he and his wife have set their sights on, but they haven’t signed a lease because both fall short of the 400-foot proximity requirement.
If the City Council doesn’t approve the amendment – or doesn’t do it soon – Ford said they’ll have to split their business into two locations. They’ll brew the beer in one, which will likely fall outside of city limits, and serve it in another, he said.
“It’s ideal to have everything together. It’s more efficient that way,” he said, adding that they want to keep both halves of the business in the NoDa neighborhood, where they started. “But we have to abide by the laws.”
A long time coming
City officials first proposed the zoning ordinance amendment in 2011, aiming to rewrite and standardize regulations first passed in the 1980s.
But it kept getting delayed: first by a debate over noise regulations that took center stage and later by a long series of discussions with neighborhoods whose residents didn’t want noisy bars and nightclubs too close to their homes.
As the amendment sat on the shelf, a separate brewery-focused ordinance passed through City Council last year. It allowed breweries to open in urban areas instead of limiting them to industrial zones – a change that helped Unknown Brewing Co., located between South End and uptown, open its doors.
City Planning Director Debra Campbell said the amendment currently under consideration is the result of more than 20 meetings with various neighborhood associations. It’s written in a way that aims to both satisfy the neighbors and support the breweries.
“They add a level of vibrancy that we feel is positive, good not only for the economy but for the community overall,” she said. “But we had to balance growing this industry with protecting the integrity and the stability of neighborhoods.”
In Dilworth, for example, residents worried the amendment would send the message that they wanted more nightspots in their neighborhood, said John Fryday, a member of the land-use committee of the Dilworth Community Development Association. But they didn’t, he said.
“We understand that we’re close to uptown and we have those amenities and so forth,” he said, “but we’re also single-family for the most part.”
After they raised their concerns to the Planning Committee, the required distance for late-night venues in their neighborhood was increased to 250 feet, up from 100 in most other areas. Fryday said now most residents are content, feeling like they have “reasonable protection.”
Michael Barnes, mayor pro tem, said there will always be concerns with an ordinance change, but the city’s spent years gathering input from everybody who would be affected.
“There may be a few isolated concerns remaining, but I believe we’ve addressed as many issues as possible,” Barnes wrote in an email.
City Council member Patsy Kinsey, who represents an area that includes NoDa, said residents who are still unsatisfied, if any, will come around after the amendment goes into effect. It’s set to be voted on July 22, and if it’s approved it would take effect immediately.
Council’s intent is to support the breweries’ growth, Kinsey said. But Goulet questioned its commitment, though he said it’s been “positive enough.”
“It’s not like the city’s going out and bending over backwards to help the breweries,” he said.
‘The closer the better’
Birdsong’s management team had looked at five locations, then 10, then 12. It took a dozen lots before they found one they liked.
Eager to start the transition, they’ve signed the lease on a new location – more than three times their current square footage and closer to uptown, at 1016 N. Davidson St.
Goulet said they’ve picked out the perfect spot in the new building where the taproom should sit. But depending on how it’s measured, it might not meet the city’s 400-foot proximity requirement – forcing them to build it on the other side of the building.
“It’d be like asking a restaurant owner to put his front door in an alleyway,” he said. “It’s not like it’d be the end of the world, but it’s definitely not customer-friendly.”
Customer appeal, though, is one of the brewery’s top goals. Its current location is designed to be a family-friendly hangout spot, home to a small patio that was buzzing with mild chatter on a recent Thursday evening.
“The people that work here care about the community and bring more to the community,” said Noah Meador, a University City-area resident who said he frequents Birdsong.
“The closer the breweries can be to neighborhoods, the better.”