Farmington social district would stretch across downtown

Farmington officials have moved forward an ordinance that will allow a “social district” downtown, but with questions about enforcement, boundaries, and size.

Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Director Kate Knight said Monday the move to establish a commons area where bar and restaurant customers can drink came as a result of the state “relaxing some ordinances we never thought would change.” Lawmakers have also allowed “carry-out cocktails.”

Downtown Social District
The red areas indicate Downtown Farmington’s proposed social district.

Knight said the DDA didn’t pursue a social district because the downtown layout didn’t seem conducive. In Northville, for example, officials were able to close streets. With state-owned Grand River running through, Farmington didn’t have that option.

“Our physical footprint doesn’t lend itself to a social district,” she said. “But in talking to some peers, we thought maybe we should look at this… We do have Riley Park.”

Located in the center of downtown, the park has been the site of other events where alcohol is served, including the Harvest Moon celebration and themed Farmington Farmers Markets.

‘Serpentine’ shape

Knight said the district must be anchored by at least two liquor license holders, and those businesses must be contiguous. That resulted in a “serpentine” proposal that includes sidewalks and crosswalks leading to Riley Park.

“We wanted to give all of our downtown businesses the same opportunity,” Knight said, adding that the district could also boost economic development. “We think it’s a differentiator and worth pursuing.”

With Riley Park as the center of the district, downtown sidewalks become the “connective tissue”, meaning patrons would be able to drink there. Knight said the city’s Public Works and Public Safety departments have been involved in discussions and are “pretty open-minded about working out details and making this a go.”

While generally supportive of the district, council member Steven Schneemann wanted to know more about what happens if someone on the sidewalk or in the park becomes inebriated.

“Is there a way to handle that, even when they’re within a social district? Is there some sort of other mechanism in the law that public safety would be able to take care of that?” he asked.

City attorney Tom Schultz confirmed that police would treat intoxicated patrons the same as if they were falling-down drunk in a bar.

“The ordinance just relaxes the open intoxicant part of it,” he said. “You would still have all the drunk and disorderly limitations that are about the behavior.”

Knight explained that each establishment must have beverage cups that bear their own mark, along with one identifying the social district. Signs will let patrons know they can’t take beverages outside the district.

Northville’s experience

Knight, who is a Northville resident, said her community has had a positive experience, even with law enforcement. The DDA has branded its district, something Farmington would do as well. Merchants have reported seeing new faces and believe the area is becoming a regional destination.

“Security was an issue they were concerned about,” she said. “They went from initially thinking there would be posted security guards, to adding signage and adding trash containers… They find that everyone is interested in doing the right thing.”

Schneemann expressed concerns about the size of the district, which stretches across most of the downtown.

“The biggest concern, really, has to do with, we’re trying to be a family-friendly town,” he said. “At the same time, we’re probably being the most progressive about public consumption.”

Schultz pointed out that businesses would still be liable for over-serving customers or serving minors. He said, in his opinion, the district does not make the city any more liable, but he suggested getting an opinion from the city’s insurer.

“This is not something our good, solid midwesterners are used to… letting folks walk around with open containers,” mayor Sara Bowman said. “Strange times are breeding some interesting new changes.”

In order to establish the district, council members would have to approve the ordinance on second reading and pass a resolution that includes the map. The district would be effective for four years, but could be amended or closed down (following a public hearing) at any time.


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