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From little acorns

Lifestyle/Technology | Royal Oak, Mich., has found a way to prosper in a declining state

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

How does a dowdy bedroom suburb to a sick city become a "chic and charming" destination location? The story of how Royal Oak, Mich., remade an aging downtown-coffee shops, boutiques, playhouses, trendy bars, restaurants, and gourmet shops now line its streets-has lessons for tired small cities that live by the car and can die by the car, unless their leaders play it smart.

The welfare of Royal Oak, located 12 miles north of Detroit, has long been tied to transportation. Settlement of it began in 1836 with the advent of the Detroit & Pontiac Railroad. In 1916 the paving of broad Woodward Avenue along Royal Oak's border made it easy for Detroiters to live there and commute into the city. Royal Oak boomed during the 1920s as population nearly quadrupled from 6,000 to 23,000. The Detroit Zoo moved to Royal Oak, and thousands also drove to visit the Shrine of the Little Flower, famous during the 1930s for its radio broadcasts by Father Charles Coughlin.

The city's population peaked at 90,000 people in 1965, yet Royal Oak began to die as new freeways made other suburbs more convenient and shoppers who once patronized Royal Oak stores went to malls situated along those freeways. But the completion of one more freeway in 1989-Interstate 696, connecting northeastern suburbs to northwestern ones-gave Royal Oak another chance, since a strategically placed exit funneled cars onto the city's Main Street.

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Here's where city leaders did something right. They saw that Royal Oak's unattractiveness in the eyes of big business created opportunity. As Bill Allen, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, told WORLD, "When things weren't going great guns, rents were cheap. It allowed small business to come in and get a foothold." The early stores were "non-corporate, single proprietor boutiques and stores that catered to a younger crowd."

Royal Oak already had a Downtown Development Authority (DDA) with the authority to plan growth. Detroit's downtown was disintegrating, but Royal Oak's burgeoning one was "easier to get to," according to DDA executive director Tim Thwing, "and walkable."

Walkability! That was key. People wanted to be able to walk from store to store to restaurant on real streets, not just in a mall. To encourage walkability, the city stopped requiring stores and restaurants to provide their own parking and assumed the responsibility, choosing to concentrate parking in structures on the perimeter of the downtown core. The city banned drive-thru eateries and banks, Thwing said: "We don't want to make the car a priority. We want to keep business on the ground floor."

The city also concentrated bars and restaurants in the downtown core by limiting new liquor licenses to that area. It made zoning requirements more flexible, allowing buildings to go taller, as long as they had retail stores or restaurants at ground level. Six new highrise condo projects (at eight stories or taller) do. The DDA focused on "getting residential and office downtown," Thwing said, rather than "going after retailers, national or independent." That kept Royal Oak from becoming an outdoor version of a generic mall, filled with the same chain stores.

The DDA also put together projects by assembling parcels of land, tearing down old structures, and cleaning up land to get it ready for development-but it never rode roughshod over any homeowners. Royal Oak concentrated on holding onto the old-more than 100 vendors bring fresh produce to the bustling farmer's market, and Superior Fish store sells the octopi that Detroit Red Wings hockey fans traditionally throw on the ice-while identifying new needs: a nice hotel and more large office space for lawyers and media professionals.

City and Chamber of Commerce officials also emphasize special events that draw people to the city. "Royal Oak in Bloom" attracts flower growers from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Last year's Clay and Glass Festival attracted 125 crafts people and 40,000 people to its juried art show, and local restaurants brought their kitchens outside. This year, on Aug. 16, the "14th annual Woodward Dream Cruise, the world's largest one-day celebration of car culture," is likely to attract more than 1 million visitors and more than 40,000 muscle cars, street rods, and classic or customized vehicles.

At some point the city began attracting motorcyclists-but Royal Oak, instead of panicking, welcomed the cyclists, many middle-aged and well-to-do, who now spend money in the stores and contribute to the city's hip reputation. On certain summer evenings the limited on-street parking places are filled with Harley Davidsons. On other nights the same parking spots are lined with Japanese motorcycles, or with a mixed Harley/Japanese crowd.

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