BirminghamJune 13, 2012
Does Birmingham face an image problem?
By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer
BIRMINGHAM — It was the beginning of April when the calls started coming in. And then the emails, followed by visits to a City Commission meeting. After two incidents involving guns in downtown Birmingham within just one month, residents were voicing their concerns to City Manager Robert Bruner about whether or not the city was safe.
In the weeks that followed, the city launched an investigation to try to pinpoint any tangible problems within the downtown area, to no avail. The incidents seemed to be a fluke, and residents’ concerns fell away.
But during a Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees meeting May 29, Township Treasurer Dan Devine said something that may have been a little startling to Birmingham residents.
The treasurer and other board members were considering an amendment to a zoning ordinance that would allow a cinema within a shopping center to apply for a Class C liquor license. The measure was approved, though Devine voted against it.
“I just don’t want to see Birmingham’s problem become our problem because we’re anxious to get there without a thoughtful approach to it,” he said at the meeting. “No one wants to turn away business, but it’s incumbent on us to have a thoughtful policy.”
Devine said he has become leery in recent weeks of downtown Birmingham. Thanks to a number of incidents that have occurred over the course of a year, city authorities like Bruner have been getting calls, emails and visits from residents who are wondering if their city is still the upscale, community-oriented neighborhood they’ve always known.
“They were concerned what was happening and they wanted to do something about it,” said Bruner. “The first meeting in April, several people came and spoke at the commission meeting, expressing concern, primarily after the gun incident on April 2.”
The incident happened just outside of South bar in downtown Birmingham, when 28-year-old Crystal Ann White from Redford allegedly fired shots from a .22-caliber handgun into the air to intimidate a Southfield woman she had been arguing with while inside the bar. She has pleaded not guilty in Oakland County’s 48th District Court and is due to be back for a final pretrial hearing July 9.
Though no one was seriously injured at the time, the incident sparked a conversation among Birmingham residents as to whether the downtown area was becoming a hotspot for crime. Just eight months before, another event occurred at South bar that put two of the venue’s bouncers in the hospital with stabbing injuries. Bruner said several people in Birmingham called and emailed his office calling for the revocation of South’s liquor license.
Dorothy Conrad is one of the Birmingham residents who worries what the downtown area will become if violent instances continue. She, along with residents Mary Ryan Taras and John Neary, attended the City Commission meeting April 9 to voice their thoughts.
“If we can’t guarantee that people coming to the downtown area are going to be safe and comfortable, we’re going to have a real problem with downtown,” said Conrad later about why she attended the meeting. “It’s very important that we get a handle on any bad situation so any people coming to downtown feel safe.”
Co-owner of South bar and Birmingham resident Beth Spadafore also attended that commission meeting, and assured commissioners that her establishment was more than willing to work with the city to keep the city safe, saying they “take the incident very seriously and want to be part of the solution.” She also noted that the altercation April 2 took place outside the establishment, and in turn shouldn’t be directly attributed to South.
Bruner said that some of the concerns voiced to him were about the clientele that some establishments draw into the city. In both cases at South bar, the suspects involved were all from other cities, including Southfield and Detroit. Bruner dismissed the concerns, saying that Birmingham is a destination spot and will stay as such, even adding that he’s heard from residents in surrounding communities that they consider the area at Maple and Old Woodward Avenue to be their downtown.
“We want to make Birmingham a great place to visit, regardless of where they’re from. That’s not the issue. The issue is how they behave when they’re here. Residents (of Birmingham) do bad things sometimes, and so do nonresidents.”
Instead of focusing on any single venue, the city launched an investigation into every establishment in Birmingham that holds a liquor license. A few minor citations were issued, but no major findings were revealed. Because no real problems could be pinpointed, Bruner said, the city opted to increase police patrols in the downtown area during the evening in hopes that the incidents were isolated.
“There’s some good cause to be concerned, and we’ve taken appropriate steps to address those concerns,” he said. “We’ve increased police patrols, and we’re looking at options for stricter controls on liquor licenses in the future. At the same time, downtown Birmingham is still a safe place to visit.
“When people read about these things in the news and maybe haven’t been here, they don’t know any different. That’s just part of our reality and what we have to deal with. We’re trying to be more proactive about telling the public what we’re doing to address problems instead of not talking about issues and hope they go away.”
But did those incidents leave Birmingham with a tarnished reputation?
According to Devine, there was more that Birmingham could’ve done, in his opinion, to avoid the alcohol-induced events.
“(Bloomfield Township) has an opportunity to redo our liquor policy; it’s out of date. I want to take a look at other surrounding communities that have done it right and also those who have done it wrong,” he said. “I think (Birmingham) would admit they could’ve done it better.”
Bruner said any bad publicity hasn’t affected the public’s perception of the city very much, adding that the number of emails and calls he received never exceeded more than a dozen.
“I think we definitely have public perception issues from time to time. The reality for a lot of folks is that they come to downtown Birmingham to have a good time, go to dinner, see a movie, and don’t have any problems with bar patrons or anyone else,” he said. “Unfortunately, you get into a situation, and we’ve had a few of them in the 16 months I’ve been here, that are unacceptable. I’m not going to downplay the things that have happened, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that anytime you have a downtown environment with a high concentration of bars and restaurants you’re going to have drunk people behaving inappropriately from time to time. That’s happened in Birmingham, and it will happen again. The question is whether it’s a manageable level or not.”
Birmingham Police Chief Don Studt said the personnel increase for downtown patrols is in line with increases in past summers.
“We have increased foot patrols in the area between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” he said. “Now, certainly the gun incidents have heightened awareness, but I view those as isolated incidents. I would say (the patrol increase) is consistent with what we’ve been doing in past years.”
Studt said that in addition to the shots fired on April 2, residents were startled by the news of an 18-year-old Troy man who was arrested for walking in the downtown area with a fully loaded M1 .30-caliber rifle. When police spotted the man and asked for identification to ensure he was of age to have the weapon, he refused, they said. Sean Combs was charged with disorderly conduct, brandishing a firearm and obstructing an officer — all misdemeanor charges to which he pleaded not guilty.
Studt added that he’s confident that when the year-end crime report is released, it will show that there hasn’t been an increase in crime above the norm. And even if there is, he said it’s not enough to warrant concern about Birmingham becoming a questionable area to live, work or socialize.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about it, but I also know on weekends the businesses are really full, and the business owners have no downturn in business whatsoever. There’s a lot of people here, and they don’t seem to be afraid. I don’t see anybody staying away.”
Bruner said that now that some time has passed and he’s spoken with all of the residents who went to him with concerns, they’ve all been relatively satisfied with the steps the city has taken to keep downtown safe in the evening hours. Devine also said he thinks that the incidents have been handled by the city, but thinks they didn’t have to happen in the first place. He said that as a bedroom community, that’s not the kind of environment he hopes to create for Bloomfield Township.
“I don’t know how they went about it, so I can’t criticize the process. Sometimes hindsight is 20/20. But obviously counting on the establishments to police themselves doesn’t work.”
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