Royal Oak greenlights formation of social district

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published April 21, 2021

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ROYAL OAK — On April 12, the Royal Oak City Commission unanimously authorized the creation of a downtown social district where patrons can purchase alcohol in specially marked cups from licensed establishments and drink it in a common outdoor area.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Public Act 124 into law July 1, 2020, which allowed local governments to establish social districts in their jurisdictions to bolster small businesses negatively affected by the pandemic.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission must approve applications from businesses that wish to join the social district, and at least two operators must be approved in order to form the social district.

Royal Oak’s proposed social district will reach along Main Street, from Pingree Boulevard to Lincoln Avenue, and from Knowles Street to Lafayette Avenue, primarily along the public rights of way so beverages do not get carried into parking decks or other public locations.

The social district would include Hyatt Place; the Royal Oak Farmers Market; Eagle Plaza; Fifth Street, which remains closed between Washington Avenue and Center Street; the Sixth Street plaza just south of the Baldwin Theatre; and Centennial Commons once the downtown park is complete.

The hours of operation will run from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

The Downtown Development Authority recommended the creation of the social district and allocated $200,000 as well as its normal maintenance activities to help maintain the endeavor.

Royal Oak Community Development Director Timothy Thwing said he was aware of approximately 39 social districts across Michigan, and Royal Oak Police Chief Corrigan O’Donohue said police in Northville and Farmington, both with active social districts, reported no issues.

“We would have to add considerable signage where the social district is and where it ends,” Thwing said. “(Interested businesses) would acquire cups (from the DDA) … and they would also have to put their logo on that cup, as well as indicate the date of sale each time one is sold.”

The commission approved the creation of the social district through the end of September so that it could evaluate it and change it if needed at that time.

“Restaurant owners view this as an opportunity to stay competitive with other communities that already have a social district. If a business is full or at capacity, they could still provide some service to someone to wander around until they get beeped for restaurant service,” Thwing said. “I would be surprised if we didn’t get at least half of the restaurants downtown with liquor licenses.”

The commission also included provisions to use recyclable or compostable cups, add more recycle bins throughout the social district, and add seating in common areas.

“I’m not wild about this,” Commissioner Sharlan Douglas said. “I just fear there are opportunities for mischief and I’m going to count on the chief to keep an eye on things. I will support the motion, but reluctantly.”

Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Paruch also said she was “not excited” about the social district.

“We don’t have large public spaces like other communities have in their downtowns,” Paruch said. “We can create some, but they’re not going to have that draw that happens in other communities.”

She said she was also concerned about public drinking in Centennial Commons. Outside of the social district, the Royal Oak code of ordinances prohibits drinking in city parks.

Mayor Michael Fournier agreed with Paruch and said that the city would monitor how the social district functions this summer and, when the time comes to open the park, make the decision whether or not to include it in the social district.

Commissioner Melanie Macey added that she also had some “nerves” about establishing a social district, but felt heartened by the time constraints ending the roaming drinking at 10 p.m.

Macey said that when she worked at Daimler, her German co-workers found it “peculiar” and “puritanical” that individuals couldn’t enjoy a beer or glass of wine in a park despite the “binge culture at bars.”

Three residents who called in during public comments expressed trepidation about the creation of a social district, citing concerns about becoming a “party town,” underage drinking and the city’s public image.