Upward Bound

As the city aims to remake itself into an urban center, will downtown Royal Oak businesses endure the growing pains of development?
Photograph by Hayden Stinebaugh

Just last year, pedestrians could peer into the glass windows of Andiamo Trattoria and find smiling faces of diners swirling pasta noodles. On warm days, patrons would sip fresh squeezed juices on the outdoor patio at Beirut Palace on Main Street, and on weekends, metro Detroiters crowded into Royal Oak Farmers Market for fresh produce along with other types of Michigan-made goods. Today, Andiamo and Beirut have closed, and for some of the vendors at the popular market, business is struggling.

At issue is the Royal Oak Civic Center project underway in many areas of the downtown. The nearly $95 million project includes a new City Hall, police station, a park, a nearly 580-space parking deck — and a six-story office buildling, which will open as an outpatient medical center for Henry Ford Health System in 2020. Much of the turmoil has been over the loss of parking on surface lots.

The projects are designed to satisfy some critical needs for the city, replacing an ageing and outdated City Hall and police station, and adding more class-A office space to downtown’s mix of restaurants and bars in an attempt to increase foot traffic. The project gained unanimous approval by city leaders at a Royal Oak City Commission meeting in August 2017.

Mike Ripinski, a resident and member of the city’s Parks & Recreation Advisory Board, who spoke at the meeting, sees jobs, growth, and a bigger tax base coming from the Civic Center. He believes the current plan is a good one, yet acknowledges its potential drawbacks. “Like any large project, there may be some details that are less than favorable to some and there will be some short-term pain before we get to the finish line,” he says.

However, some businesses have sued the city for selling the prime-location Williams Street parking lot to the projects’ developer, Boji Group of Lansing, for $1; awarding Boji a no-bid contract for the Civic Center; and transferring $5.5 million to the firm to help it get a construction loan. While the businesses’ lawsuits failed in Oakland County Circuit and the Michigan Appeals courts, an attorney filed in late 2018 to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.

“There’s always a solution. People have to be willing to come to the table.
— Denise Prielipp

“We would have expected the city to talk with the restaurant owners,” says David Roznowski,  spokesperson for Take Back Royal Oak Coalition, a group focused on government transparency. “The city didn’t reach out to the restaurants and business owners in the planning process, they went ahead and made everything concrete first.”

Such sharply different perspectives make it hard to tell whether some of the distressed restaurants are closing due to construction and loss of convenient parking, or to the usual churn of downtown eateries. But city officials believe the changes make sense. The city’s website shares that Royal Oak has seen growth since announcing its project. New Main Street spots include Freshii, City Ramen, and Taco Bell Cantina.

“Royal Oak is urbanizing, and we’re becoming denser,” says Sean Kammer, downtown manager for the city’s Downtown Development Authority. “We’re conserving space, and therefore building up, not out,” explaining the motive to swap surface lots for parking structures. That means visitors must learn new downtown parking habits, Kammer says. A new Civic Center garage will open in May, adding to parking already available at the roughly 580-space structure on Second Street, which opened last January. It’s connected to an older structure with nearly 400 spaces. The city also operates three downtown structures that accommodate nearly 1,400 vehicles.

Concern is also growing over the accessibility to the city’s Farmers Market with the loss of parking spaces and further encroachment to make room for the new City Hall and police station. Farmers Market vendor Denise Prielipp first noticed the impact of construction when the nearby Williams Street Lot closed in spring, eliminating parking for just over 220 vehicles. Prielipp, whose Hilltop Greenhouse and Farms located in Dexter has sold specialty greens and free-range eggs at the market for 20 years, says her revenue fell up to 15 percent after construction started. Losses hit 40 percent on some weekends. Nearly 185 parking spaces closed in nearby Lot 11 in November, possibly making matters worse. She hoped the city would compromise and protect some of the surface parking, and suggested consolidating the City Hall and police station. “There’s always a solution,” Prielipp says. “People have to be willing to come to the table.”

Not everyone agrees that loss of surface parking is hurting downtown. Nick Ritts, owner of Tom’s Oyster Bar and Ale Mary’s, says he’s having his busiest year ever. “I don’t think the town helped it or hurt it,” he says. Perhaps Birmingham, which has few surface lots and five garages, can offer reassurance. Its restaurants had a relatively smooth summer — even as Old Woodward and sidewalks were torn up, says Justin Near, president of Near Perfect Media, who represents multiple Birmingham eateries.

“Change, a lot of times, is difficult,” Near says of the Royal Oak situation. On the flip side, another notable saying suggests change is good.