The Royal 'E'

Nov 4, 2009 at 12:00 am

For some, downtown Royal Oak's proposed 10-screen theater and bowling alley, with its already-approved liquor license, is the harbinger of suburban ruin. To them it promises parking woes, unwanted traffic and a "big box" operation that will be out of character with the walkable downtown and nearby residential neighborhoods.

But for others, the Emagine Royal Oak & Star Lanes would provide more customers for the downtown's shops and restaurants, needed revenue for the city coffers and viable development on a vacant piece of prime real estate at Eleven Mile and Troy Street just a block east of Main Street.

As the Royal Oak Planning Commission has been considering the proposal, the debate rages: Should the city turn away developers willing to build a $14 million complex? Does Emagine's construction signal the beginning of the end of Royal Oak's downtown as it stands? Would the 1,700-seat theater for first-run movies ruin the Main Art Theatre next door? Are parking and traffic concerns enough to kill the project? Would the complex provide a family-oriented entertainment venue that would keep moviegoers in Royal Oak instead of venturing to other towns? How can the current proposal be "tweaked" to address residents' concerns and objections? And what about parking, landscaping, hours of operation and security?

In its effort to partially answer such questions, the planning commission met last week in a special session for public comment followed by a work group where Emagine owners were on hand to meet with community representatives and city officials. Emagine leaders agreed to modify the plan in light of some of the discussion and will return to the commission for its Nov. 10 meeting that will again include public comment and commission discussion about the project.

The "to-do" list included re-designing a parking deck, locating another possible site for employee parking, changing the aesthetics of an exterior wall, and adapting the business plan to reduce residents' concerns about parties in the complex.

The commission will then vote, its recommendation to be forwarded to the city council, which will have the final say about the project.

Meanwhile, residents, nearby business owners, city officials and the project's owners have been voicing their clashing opinions.

Across the street from the planned development, the Superior Fish market would literally be in the complex's shadow. Its 36-foot eastern wall will tower over the one-story market.

But Superior co-owner Kevin Dean is happy something is going on the lot that has been vacant for four years. "It just needs it," he says. 

Superior has been in operation for about 60 years, about 25 of them at the current location. Dean has watched Royal Oak evolve from a simple downtown "of shoe repair places and vacuum cleaner shops" to one with small, edgy businesses like Noir Leather and independent bookstores in the 1990s. Then came the current era of (mainly non-chain) restaurants and boutique-y shops. A family entertainment center like Emagine just might be next, he says.

"It's always been a changing area," he says. "That's just who we are."

But for nearby residents who oppose the project, the current rendition of Royal Oak is what they want to keep. Pat Franz told the commission that she objects to the added density the project would bring to the intersection it would share with the library and the farmers' market as well as the fish store. 

"This is too much in too small an area," she says. "It's just too risky for a few part-time jobs and a few hundred thousand dollars. Let them go somewhere else. ... Please don't do this to our community." 

But Jason Krieger, another resident living nearby, disagreed. "I think the concept is great," he says. "It's something that could be successful, it just has to be treated right."

Emagine founder Paul Glantz, who attended the nearly four-hour session, says he will take questions and concerns from residents and commission members into account.

"We will be good neighbors," he says.

Emagine currently operates theaters in Novi, Canton and Woodhaven. The Royal Oak site would be the first with a bowling alley.

News Hits was written by Metro Times staff writer Sandra Svoboda. You can reach her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]