Urban strategizing in Pontiac

There’s an effort underway in Pontiac to undo 1960s-era urban planning that steered visitors around downtown, separated residential neighborhoods from the city center, and over time drained downtown of its lifeblood: people.

Back then, planners were focused on the almighty automobile and moving it through and around town as quickly and efficiently as possible. Their answer was the Woodward Loop, a fairly forgettable name that accomplished its immediate goal but ultimately had the unforgettable outcome of nearly drying up downtown Pontiac.

The situation for the city, nearly out of money and under the control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager, has led Oakland County officials to hire an urban strategist from Parsons-Brinckerhoff. The strategist, Thomas Jost, has gotten to know Pontiac’s pluses and minuses as he works to finalize a plan using input from city, county, and state officials as well as residents and business owners. The plan will come with recommendations and a plan of action that could be the city’s next best hope for a comeback.

“Now couple the depressed local economy with a transportation system that has cut off the nerve center of that community and the first question is, how do you resolve the infrastructure problem and help the city regrow and return to economic prosperity?” says Jost, a senior urban strategist in Parsons Brinckerhoff’s office in New York.

He has worked on urban renewal projects around the country, including New York’s meat packing district, which has been transformed into a place to live, work and spend free time. Jost has worked in urban design for more than 20 years, much of it spent preserving and re-using open spaces such as the High Line in New York city. He has also worked on urban design challenges around the world: Mumbai, India, and Mexico City.

Pontiac’s ongoing revitalization plan is detailed in the Downtown Pontiac Transportation Assessment, an 18-month-long study that’s explained and updated on a website called Pontiac Livability.

Goals of the plan include capitalizing on Pontiac’s physical and natural assets — among them a new multi-modal transportation center, a regional bike trail system, and the Clinton River — and combining the assets with updated urban planning that could reconnect downtown to neighborhoods, employment centers, and nearby communities.

The final plan will make specific recommendations, which Jost and county officials say are ready to be enacted because many bureaucratic hurdles have already been cleared. The recommendations, in part, will describe the steps for implementing “development-specific design guidelines for redevelopment parcels, transportation connections, wayfinding (signage), and improving livability and safety in downtown Pontiac.

“The key here is bringing together the assets such as the bike route, the reconstructed road, the railway station, the river, the old, historic buildings, the Saginaw Main Street, the beautiful architecture. As you begin to group those pieces together and link them up, they all build on each other and each becomes a contributing factor to redevelopment,” says Jost.

He says there are properties that developers and entrepreneurs are interested in and ready to develop once some of the drawbacks of the city are addressed. Even with the struggles, developers are already banking on a Pontiac revival. A major loft and retail development is underway. Tech and new economy businesses like the urban feel of Pontiac and have set up there. Believers in Pontiac are sticking by it, many of them putting their faith in a newly designed city.

“The Woodward Loop really cut off residences in the south from the residences in the north…If you could blend those neighborhoods back together, you could begin building a strong connection to get residential back in to downtown Pontiac,” says Jost, who’s seen and helped undo many outdated urban planning decisions. “The bones of downtown Pontiac are very strong…Saginaw is a great Main Street. There’s shops along there, great buildings and places of interest. There have to be mixed uses. You have to build the entertainment capacity, the art capacity…part of that is brining people to live there. These neighborhoods that have been cut off could be the beginnings of residential downtown. That’s what Pontiac needs. There’s an absence of life and activity and a lot of that is because of Woodward Avenue.”

The urban strategy plan comes at a cost of of just over $400,000; $300,000 from a federal grant, and $104,000 worth of in-kind services as a match to the grant. But will it pay off?

“It certainly isn’t a cure-all, but without this step I think many other initiatives that could strengthen the city, good ideas, cannot be acted on,” Jost says. “This is just one of many steps to take to strengthen the urban core.”