Royal Oak market vendors join push to curb development

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Concerns about the future of one of the state’s oldest farmers market has prompted several vendors to join up with Take Back Royal Oak, a grassroots group of businesses and citizens that want the city to scale back some of its development plans.

The famed sign outside the Royal Oak Farmers Market as seen on Saturday October 13, 2018 has welcomed customers for decades.

Over the past year, an ambitious $58 million project east of Main Street and south of 11 Mile has  eliminated more than 225 surface parking spaces across from the current city hall, which will be demolished to make way for a park. Some nearby Main Street businesses have closed up, saying a lack of parking was keeping customers away.

The city has built a 525-space parking facility west of Main Street but 300 of its spaces are reserved for tenants at a new office building. A 585-space parking structure being built east of Main is not expected to provide much relief, especially since Henry Ford Health System will be operating a nearby out-patient facility with several hundred employees and visitors daily.

Vendors and customers alike at the Royal Oak Farmers Market have expressed fears that after 92 years, the city-owned market could be in jeopardy.

The reason? Plans to build a new city hall and a police station in a surface parking lot now used by shoppers would eliminate another 200 parking spaces. Shoppers, many of them elderly, would be forced to walk blocks to available parking and might decide to buy their fruit and vegetables from more easily accessible stores.

 City officials have discounted such fears and described the popular market as a municipal “gem.”

Ken Penzien of Penzien Farms and Greenhouses in Macomb Township  stands by 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."

Officials said ample parking will remain near the site. Mayor Michael Fournier said besides the new parking deck, plans are being made to provide carts for shoppers, a curbside pick-up zone and additional parking spaces at a closed fish market on the north side off 11 Mile and Troy roads and a nearby church. There is also talk of shuttles.

Critics remain skeptical. In a recent news release, they didn’t pull any punches.

“The city is all screwed up,” said Dominic Cinzori of Cinzori Organic, one of the state’s largest organic markets. “Cities all over Michigan and the U.S. are working to develop local farmers markets and Royal Oak is trying to destroy one of the oldest and purest markets in the state. Look at what is happening in Kalamazoo, or Grayling, where the Michigan Commission of Agriculture gave the market a $250,000 grant.”

Charles Semchena, a former city commissioner and ex-city attorney, said the city’s plans could be revamped to make everyone happy with erecting just one, not two, new buildings.

“Adding (a floor) to the police station for a city hall not only would save parking, but it would prevent the wasteful removal of infrastructure and the lot that cost city taxpayers $4 million only a couple of years ago,” said Semchena. “The city refused to study this idea in the past but it’s not too late for the city to wake up in light of the loss of restaurants and businesses downtown.”

Some market vendors said they love Royal Oak and their customers but are reconsidering their leases obtained from the city.

Ken Penzien of Penzien’s Farm & Greenhouses in Imlay City has brought produce to the market for 31 years. This year, he started diversifying and now also sells at the Rochester Farmers Market, citing Royal Oak's building project.

“The construction really hit us hard. My booth was moved from where it had been for more than 20 years because they have the road all torn up,” said Penzien. “Financially, it’s been a significant hit every weekend, not just for me but for almost everyone, which is why we need to express our concerns on behalf of the people of Royal Oak because this market is here for them.”

Penzien added that Royal Oak is probably 75 percent of his business. “I was hoping for another 10-12 years here in Royal Oak because that’s what I need for retirement, but I’m not sure what the future holds.”

Don and Jan Van Houtte are part of a four-generation family tradition of selling at the Royal Oak Farmers Market since the 1920s. Jan Van Houtte was the market master the first year that the city purchased the market from the county.

“The city back then really had a vision, they pushed the market and it became a destination for craft shows, boys and girls clubs, historical society meetings and of course the Farmers Market. It made the news every week,” said Jan Van Houtte.

“I think the city is missing its mark with its planning, the lack of parking and belief that shoppers will walk to a parking structure or use a shuttle, because they told us they won’t," she said.

Ken and Denise Prielipp of Ann Arbor-based Hilltop Greenhouse and Farms said Royal Oak provides more shoppers than other venues but “traffic is definitely down since construction began …”

“Many of our customers have told us that if there isn’t a solution for parking, they won’t frequent the market because it doesn’t make sense to take a flat of flowers on a shuttle or to walk a few blocks to a structure.”

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