Phoenix rising? Pontiac on the edge of a recovery.
By Lisa Brody
One hundred years ago, riding north up Woodward Avenue from Detroit to Pontiac was a voyage from one successful urban landscape to another. Set alongside the Clinton River, Pontiac was more than just the county seat of Oakland County, but a capital of the new and thriving automobile industry. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Pontiac grew and thrived as tens of thousands of autoworkers moved to the city from the American South to work in its General Motors auto assembly plants such as at Pontiac Assembly, and African Americans traveled north in the Great Migration seeking work, education, the opportunity to vote and escape oppression from Jim Crow laws of the South. Surrounding areas, including Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township and Birmingham also benefitted and grew as luxury areas where executives and management sought to settle with their families.
Fast forward to 2021, and Pontiac is struggling to reinvent itself after decades of poverty and decay. As quickly as Pontiac shot to stardom so too did its urban light dim, a victim of changing ideas of urban living and changing fortunes to the American automobile industry.
Just as Detroit has begun to reinvent itself in the last decade or so as a new model of urban renewal, so too is Pontiac working to develop itself as a new and vibrant city, one where young, creative talent will want to live, an affordable option for those who may have been priced out of neighboring towns, and where several large corporations, from Amazon to United Wholesale Mortgage, have seized upon the opportunity to relocate. The question is whether this is Pontiac's time to rise from its ashes, or if it will continue to smolder.
As of the 2020 census results, Pontiac has 61,606 residents, a slight increase from 2010’s census of 59,515 residents. It reached its highest population in 1970, with 85,279 residents. Demographically, the city is more than half Black, with African Americans accounting for 52.1 percent of the population. Whites make up 34.4 percent of the city; Hispanics are 16.5 percent; two or more races, 4.5 percent; Asian, 2.3 percent; other races, 6.2 percent.
The average household income in 2021 is $46,015, with a poverty rate of almost 31 percent. The median age of a Pontiac resident is 32 years of age – 30.6 years old for a male; 33.5 years for a female, according to World Population Review.
In terms of its downtown area, “Currently, the downtown retail availability rate is 17 percent, with an occupancy rate of 83 percent,” said Jared Friedman, managing director, Friedman Real Estate.
Pontiac was founded in 1818, the second European-American organized settlement in Michigan in close proximity to Detroit, after Dearborn. It was famously named after the Native American Indian Chief Pontiac, a war chief of the Ottawa people, who had lived in the area prior to the Europeans. Two years after its founding, Pontiac was designated as the county seat of Oakland County. The Pontiac Company, which consisted of 15 members, was chaired by Solomon Sibley of Detroit, who along with Stephen Mack and Shubael Conant, developed the town, and Sibleys and his wife, Sarah, largely financed the construction of the first buildings.
In 1837, the same year Michigan became a state, Pontiac became a village, and in 1861 was incorporated by the legislature as a city.
Situated on the Clinton River in a county which features an abundance of lakes, Pontiac was the first inland settlement, according to George Newman Fuller in Economic and Social Beginnings of Michigan. The river provided transportation, and later power, as the city attracted professionals, including doctors and lawyers, and became an early center of industry, with woolen and grist mills making use of the Clinton River as a power source.
As the century turned, several carriage manufacturing companies which had established themselves evolved into the new automobile industry, and Pontiac soon became a capital of this new business. The city was best known for its General Motors automobile manufacturing plants of the 20th century, which became the basis of Pontiac’s economy and contributed to the wealth of the entire region. Pontiac’s plants included Fisher Body, Pontiac East Assembly, also known as Truck Coach/Bus, which manufactured GMC products, and the Pontiac Motor Division.
Pontiac grew as the industry grew – and suffered as it did. The buildup of the defense industry and conversion of the auto industry during World War II were great for the city, as were the first postwar years, but as vets benefitted for the GI Bills and developers built suburbs and people began commuting to work, Pontiac, like other larger cities, lost residents to newer housing. Businesses left following those residents and vacancies in the city’s downtown became legendary.
“People were leaving core cities and going to easier places they could park, places closer to their homes. Cities were declining. Newer things were being built in suburbia. It was a time of prosperity, so people had cars and roads were new and good,” explained Mark Nickita, an urban planner and architect who is president of Archive DS, as well as an outgoing city commissioner in Birmingham. “Office parks, shopping centers, subdivisions were all considered new and preferable and the place you wanted to be, and cities were the old the thing, the places to leave.”
Leaders of the city and developers attempted to staunch the outward flow, with the creation of a new football stadium for the Detroit Lions, which was first conceived of in 1965 in a push by city leaders and resident and developer C. Don Davidson, which ultimately became known as the Pontiac Metropolitan Silverdome, an 80,000 seat stadium which began construction in 1972 and opened in 1975.
While it didn’t drive significant urban renewal, the Silverdome became a sports and entertainment landmark for decades, until the next new best thing came – with the Lions eventually moving back to Detroit, to Ford Field, in 2002, and the Silverdome became an albatross. It was sold for $583,000 – after being built for $56 million – at a real estate auction in 2009 by Canadian company Triple Investment Group. They attempted to sell the site for $30 million, without success.
While Mayor Deirdre Waterman hailed the purchase by Triple Investment Group at the time, hoping the city would see development dollars, eventually Pontiac had to sue the company, finally reching an agreement to raze the site.
In 2019, Amazon was announced as the tenant of a new $250 million fulfillment center for the property, which opened in September 2021, employing over 1,200.
Another ‘70s idea which was an attempt at urban renewal was known as the “Pontiac Plan,” to bring office, residential and a transportation center in an attempt to revitalize the city which was struggling with a declining population and loss of jobs. The initial phase of this plan included the Phoenix Center, three office buildings, a transportation center and a high rise residential complex. Initial renderings for the plan were done by developer Davidson and his University of Detroit architecture class. The goal was to benefit the city and the entire region around it, according to Davidson’s blog, to be built in three phases – although only part of phase one was eventually built, the multi-level parking structure, three office buildings, a senior apartment high rise and the transportation center. This development came to be known as the Pontiac Phoenix Center.
Other developments on the site, such as an art museum, performance center, an 8,000 seat sports arena, restaurants and a convalescent center for the elderly, hotel, commercial shopping center and park plaza, remained only as drawings.
“The remaining phases of the Plan would never come to fruition due to, not only bureaucracy and financial restraints incurred by the early 80’s recession, but primarily due to incompetence and a lack of vision from past and present city leaders,” Davidson wrote on his blog. Davidson died in 1987, with his dream of a revitalized Pontiac unrealized.
While part of the Pontiac Plan, the Phoenix Center, was built, it ended up not being the catalyst for growth and development for the city. If anything, the parking deck became a multi-million white elephant and for over a decade, it sat empty as city finances crumbled, debt grew and Pontiac governance was overtaken by an emergency manager appointed by the governor.
“As downtowns were dying, there was this cycle of ‘big ideas,’” said Nickita. “Planners were creating grand catalysts – ‘phoenix’ or ‘renaissance’ for cities. So Detroit got the Renaissance Center, Pontiac got the Phoenix Center. In Birmingham, we got the 555 Building, a brand new gleaming complex from the messy area of the city with cheap land. It was the great new thing. It would ‘rise from the ashes’ and create a new injection of money and excitement and stop the economic slide.
“There was a lot of hope and excitement and rethinking, believing it was a fresh view,” Nickita continued. “But all of these things had issues because they deviated from core issues of the city.”
He said the original plan for the Phoenix Center was centered around the belief that the city was antiquated. “The big big plan for the Phoenix Center was a parking deck with everyone rising above the city,” he said. “All the pedestrians, residents and business were to be above the city. The parking decks have two spots designed to hold buildings – there are foundations set for four buildings, not two – to take over the entire downtown with the Phoenix Center.”
While it hurt Pontiac’s fortune’s for a generation, from a planner and urbanist’s point of view, Nickita is glad it didn’t work. He is now working with Dirt Realty, which bought the Ottawa Towers on the site, adjacent developable land as well as the parking deck portion of the parking structure. One tower is currently 85 percent leased, while the other tower is still vacant. The city retains ownership of the top deck.
“Why it didn’t work from my perspective as an urbanist is because cities thrive on human perspective, connected to human scale and the way we live, work and play – and we’ve been doing that for millennium. Why do we think cities built in the 1800s are still great? Because they’re built on community and interaction. Cities that are time-tested, they work time and again, there’s history. It’s great to be innovative, but you need to understand how things work for many years. You can have innovative ideas but there’s an adherence to these fundamental principles of design. Why are we reinventing the wheel when we know the wheel works so well?”
Nickita takes it further. “So why did we go to Pontiac and build this parking structure and line it with parking and lift everything away from the streets, away from the pedestrians, everything else in the city – 50-feet in the air?” he asked. “It was to separate people from their cars, an idea of the ‘60s and ‘70s, instead of having them work comfortably together, interacting.”
Pontiac has what he calls “good bones” – “a great downtown grid, blocks and street grid, a good pedestrian network, a lot of civic buildings, a lot of towers that are gorgeous, with art deco architecture. It has a lot of very good things going for it. Its physical condition is very good. Pontiac’s housing stock has a lot going for it. There are lot of traditional homes in some good neighborhoods, some are in great shape, others in foundational that could be improved. The location is incredible, in the center of the entire county, located convenient to Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township, Auburn Hills, Rochester Hills. It has great proximity to freeways and streets and is accessible to city buildings.
“Frankly, few cities in the metro area have the bones of Pontiac that have already been there.”
Nickita believes the key to turn Pontiac into a city people want to come to is “you need the private sector and the public sector to start rowing in the same direction. Historically, it has been one side or the other rowing, but not at the same time,” he said.
Carolyn Loh, professor of urban planning at Wayne State University agrees, noting that one of Pontiac’s biggest challenges is “the hollowing out of the city government that has happened over long periods of time, exacerbated by the periods of emergency management. In Pontiac, one of the examples of the legacy of that is they cut almost all of their parks and recreation departments. A community group has raised money to fix up their parks. That is where their money is coming from because the city didn’t have the money.
“So if you offer people the choice of where they can live, if you have a city that can’t fulfill the mandates of city government, it’s a less desirable place to live,” Loh said. “The city government has to really focus so people see and feel the benefits and improvements – so the grass is mowed at the playgrounds, no glass is broken. It lays the foundation for families to move into neighborhoods. It’s a longer term aspiration.
“I don’t want to discount the people who are there and are heavily invested. It really matters that they’re there, but with a community that’s lost population, it’s imperative that it grows,” Loh said.
Former Governor Jennifer Granholm first placed Pontiac under an emergency manager in 2009, and former Governor Rick Snyder appointed two more, in further attempts to stabilize the city’s rocky finances. The city finally exited emergency management in 2016, having cut total spending from $55.2 million in 2008 to $28.2 million in 2015.
Among the many cuts made was in public safety, outsourcing its police and fire to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and Waterford Fire Department, respectively, to save money. Public safety expenses were cut from $30 million in 2008 to $19.7 million in 2015. The contract with Oakland County Sheriff saves the city $2.2 million a year, and the fire department contract saves the city $3.6 annually. The city also sold its sewage plant to Oakland County for $55 million.
Another benefit of the sheriff’s department contract was a significant increase in safety and a decrease in the crime rate.
“We took over just over 10 years ago. Initially there was a lot of hesitation and resistance,” recalled Oakland Sheriff Michael Bouchard. “There were some who said we would be an invading police force – and some of our biggest opponents are now our biggest supporters.
“When we assumed operations, 911 response times were about 80 minutes,” Bouchard said. “Now it’s six minutes. Violent crimes are down dramatically across the board. There’s been a huge growth in the business community, and many tell us it’s in no small part to people feeling safer. There’s United Wholesale Mortgage, Amazon, Williams International, M-1 Concourse – tons of employees and investment. All those employees need to feel safe and protected. Home values are rising for the first time in decades. People want to live in Pontiac. With my next budget, early next year, I’m planning on adding new deputies on foot patrol downtown.
“When we took over operations, Pontiac was in the top 10 most dangerous cities in American. Now, it’s not even in the top 100.”
Bouchard said the sheriff’s department is working well with Pontiac’s administration, both the mayor’s office and the city council – both of which will see turnover come November 2, election day, with former state Rep. Tim Greimel facing off against Alexandria T. Riley for mayor, as incumbent Deirdre Waterman failed to garner enough votes in the August primary to move forward for a third term. Waterman did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
Greimel, who represented Pontiac for six years as a state representative and another six years as a county commissioner, said, “I was very proud of the resources I was able to bring to the community for 12 years. But there is a lot of important work to still do, from improving city services, youth recreation and enrichment services, and trying to bring investments and jobs to Pontiac.”
If elected in November, a major focus, he said, will be to translate some of the increased tax revenue from the increase in employees from major companies such as Amazon, Williams International and United Wholesale Mortgage, into an increase in city services, job training and apprenticeships for city residents.
“Voters actually approved a youth recreational millage three years ago, for $1 million a year,” Greimel said. “So the city has collected $3 million, but we have nothing to show for it so far – and it’s inexcusable,” blaming constant bickering between Waterman and Pontiac City Council which has led to gridlock that has ground the city to a halt.
Another example of his – and many others – frustration is medical marijuana licenses which voters approved in August 2018 – but which city hall has yet to issue a single license. Many developers bought up properties in anticipation of opening marijuana dispensaries, and there has been total stagnation on the part of both city council and the mayor, with Waterman yet to appoint an administration appeals board, a requirement before licenses can be issued. Recreational marijuana has not yet been approved in Pontiac.
A new wrinkle arose recently when Waterman announced that the city clerk had hired an attorney to assist in the process, but it’s the same attorney some applicants had hired, setting the entire process back to the starting gate.
“People in the city are aware of the dysfunction at city hall and want competent, qualified elected governance, and want the mayor and city council collaborating, and we haven’t seen that in many years in Pontiac,” Greimel said. He believes his background in government makes him that person.
He also believes his long-term connection with county, state and federal government will benefit Pontiac in the short-term and long-term.
Oakland County Executive David Coulter believes the signs are there for Pontiac to benefit – partially because if President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda passes, “The amount of federal funds coming to our state, our county, is unprecedented, maybe since the New Deal. So if we have the right plans, then we have the resources to make the right investments. Previously, Pontiac was in receivership, and there just wasn’t the resources. We can hopefully leverage that appropriately to make plans happen. There’s a real opportunity.”
He, like others, sees the progress being made. Already, he noted, United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM) employs about 9,000 people at a renovated building on South Boulevard.
“UWM moved its headquarters to Pontiac in 2017 because it was rapidly outgrowing its previous building in Troy. As a company, we wanted to find a campus that we could grow into and make a positive impact. Since moving, UWM has grown from 2,100 to now 9,000 people, and is continuously finding ways to stay involved and help the local Pontiac community and beyond,” said Laura Lawson, UWM’s chi