Development sows fears for future of Royal Oak Farmers Market

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
Kaitlyn Wojciak carries her infant Declan as she buys shops at the Royal Oak Farmers Market on Oct. 13.

Royal Oak — For decades, it’s been a popular place to shop, eat and meet friends and neighbors on Saturdays. But growers at Royal Oak’s farmers market fear a city development project could spell the end of a community institution.

There are concerns that the $58 million City Center project, to include a Henry Ford Health System outpatient center, will eventually encroach on the current market site, also owned and operated by the city.

Residents, farmers, shoppers and city officials differ on the potential impact on the market, but some concerns are constant.

While work progresses on the Lansing-based Boji Group’s development, nearby businesses and farmers report their business is down, something they blame on the push to remake the city's core. The project has been somewhat controversial since it was given to Boji without competing bids and with an incentive of free city land and $5 million.

 At issue is the loss of hundreds of surface parking spaces. And more parking will be sacrificed under Royal Oak's plans to demolish City Hall and the police station and replace them with new buildings near the market. 

The question is a matter of math. The city, to advance its plans, has eliminated 225 surface parking spots from the Williams Street lot across from City Hall and eventually will eliminate 175 from the market area, for a total of 400 lost spaces.

Ken Penzien of Penzien Farms and Greenhouses in Macomb Township points to an area already under construction at the Royal Oak Farmers Market.   "That used to be where I put my produce," he said. "That's where they say a street is going to go now. No room for me anymore."

Denise and Ken Prielipp, owner-operators of Hill Top Greenhouse and Farms in Ann Arbor, expressed their worries on a recent Saturday while setting up vegetables and flowers for sale at the market.

“Our greatest concern is parking and how it will impact our customers,” Denise Prielipp said. “People want to be close to where they are shopping, and many of them don’t want to or can’t walk several blocks to a parking space.

"The city has already eliminated some nearby spaces, and we think we are already seeing a drop of sales, about 15 to 20 percent, because of it."

A group of 11 Royal Oak property owners have sued to stop the city's plans, so far without success. An Oakland County judge and the Michigan Court of Appeals both dismissed the complaint, but attorney Ethan Holtz says the plaintiffs plan to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Royal Oak Mayor Michael Fournier says fears of the market's demise are unfounded.

“There is zero truth to the rumors that the farmers market is closing,” Fournier said. “In fact the contrary, the city continues to invest in the market to further enhance the shopping experience, including curbside loading and shopping carts. The market is a downtown gem, and the city is committed to its success — now and in the long run."

The market, in operation since 1925, features about 100 farmers and vendors and draws between 1,000 and 3,000 visitors on weekends. It’s so popular that at times all of the city's current available surface parking spots are filled.

 The city's plans to build a new  City Hall and police station will eliminate all but about 100 parking spaces. Shoppers and farmers alike believe that will signal the beginning of the end.

Diane Nykanen, right, of Van Houtte Farms in Armada, assists customers with their purchases on Oct.13 at the Royal Oak Farmers Market.

Despite the mayor's assurances, Denise Prielipp said she may have to consider whether to renew her lease at the market — which costs about $6,000 for the year — when it comes up in the spring. 

“It (lease) is higher than most markets, and we may have to move elsewhere,” Prielipp said. “We like the market and the customers have been good for us. But if they stop coming … This is our job. This is our paycheck.”

“This market is a gem,” said Ken Prielipp, who has been farming for 20 years. “Every other place is envious on how we have space inside a building and can also display outside. And our customers come from all over — Oak Park, Berkley, Birmingham — this place is a destination.”

That is born out in random interviews on a recent Saturday and also by the city’s own Internet survey from residents, seeking input on whether shoppers would consider a valet or shuttle ride to and from market.

About 74 percent of the first 162 respondents said that was “not likely” or “not very likely.” When asked if they would consider a paid or free shuttle, about the same majority said they might consider a shuttle if it was free. 

A new parking structure that's under construction, and set to open in June, will have 585 spaces. Taking into account the 400 surface spaces expected to be lost near the market, that's -- on paper -- a net gain of 185.

But the adjacent planned office building, to be occupied by the Henry Ford outpatient center, is expected to create a heavier demand for parking that extends beyond normal business hours and on Saturdays, when the market draws its largest crowds.

Officials say that structure and another about the same size built two blocks away on Center Street would provide sufficient spaces. But 300 of the 525 spaces in the Center Street garage are reserved for tenants in new office buildings. And it's not clear if shoppers will be willing to walk for blocks loaded down with produce and flowers.

Fournier said plenty of parking will be available for the public.

“(Henry Ford Health System) will not take up many spaces during market hours or at night when demand for parking is highest,” Fournier said.

“Surface parking will remain,” he said. “Parking for the disabled will remain or grow. Curbside pickup, valet and shopping carts will be available for those who have bulk purchases.”

Fournier said additional parking is also available at a closed fish market across 11 Mile and a nearby church lot.

Construction is under way at the Royal Oak Farmers Market parking lot.  Moving two new structures on the site will eliminate all but about 100 parking spaces.

Shoppers and farmers interviewed by The Detroit News agree some customers will be unwilling or unable to walk blocks from a parking structure and return with groceries, especially the elderly and those with physical challenges. Shoppers routinely make multiple trips with purchases to their vehicles and return for more shopping.

Charles Semchena, a former city commissioner and city attorney, said Royal Oak could ensure the market's future by adjusting its development plans.

“It would be easy to save the farmers market by moving the City Hall to an additional floor or two on top of the proposed police department," he said.

Shoppers and farmers fret about what the future holds for the market they love.

"I grew up going to Eastern Market in Detroit,” said Steve Levine, 68, of Oak Park. “But I’ve been going to the Royal Oak market for 30 years. I want to know where my vegetables are from and talk to the people who grow them."

Don Van Houtte, of Van Houtte Farms, said: "I hear people complaining about having to walk two or three blocks now. If you don't have customers, then we're out of here."

Lynn Fish, whose Happy Belly Bakery is a favorite among shoppers, said she believes some of her customers would buy her products online if she ever moved. But the true value of the market is social, she said. 

"It's more than just a grocery store," she said. "This is a coffee shop. This is a chance to get together and talk with your neighbors.”

One shopper, Mary Fairfield, 48, of Royal Oak said she goes to the market every Saturday. She scoffs at the thought that its future might be in jeopardy.

“This market is so important to so many people, I cannot believe it might be closed,” she said. “People would be lying down the ground outside before they would let anything happen to it.”

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