Building Connections between Downtown and Neighborhoods
Pontiac, Michigan, the town for which General Motors named its famous line of cars and trucks, is an economically distressed city of approximately 66,095 people, down from a peak of 85,000 in 1970. The unemployment rate in Pontiac was 31.3% as of April, 2010 (www.milmi.org). This is among the highest in the nation, and is more than double that of Michigan. The non-white population in Pontiac is 67%, compared to a regional average of 30%.
There can be no argument that the collapse of the automotive industry has played anything less than a devastating role in Pontiac. The GM Truck and Bus Plant located in Pontiac, which closed in 2005, once employed tens of thousands and enabled the flourishing of a prosperous middle class. The Pontiac Assembly Plant, which employed a reduced workforce of approximately 1,000, closed in 2009. These job losses have crippled the City. Reduced population and foreclosures have resulted in a $12 million tax deficit for 2010. The State of Michigan has appointed an emergency financial manager to oversee the operation of City government.
While it has had a significant impact, the declining automotive industry has not been the only factor in contributing to Pontiac's pain. The historic downtown, once the hub of community commerce, has faced the same challenges that most historic city centers have faced in the past 30 years. Migration of residents to outlying suburbs followed by movement of retail outlets to large central malls and commercial strips, changing lifestyle preferences, and demographic shifts have conspired to draw people and commerce away from Downtown Pontiac. The central business district in Pontiac struggles with a high vacancy rate and frequent turnover. Pedestrian traffic in the downtown and hours of operation has declined dramatically in the past 25 years.
Finally, in addition to all of this, bad planning decisions in the early 1960's have literally strangled the downtown. A "Woodward Loop" was built around downtown to allow motorists to bypass the urban core when traveling north and south, and additional transportation projects have hampered east-west travel.
The result is two-fold; visitors are discouraged to visit downtown, and surrounding neighborhoods are physically cut off from the urban core by a "river" of concrete and cars. The once vibrant central business district still shows the scars of Urban Renewal, with many buildings demolished and never rebuilt. It is difficult for people to move between neighborhoods, downtown, and regional destinations, and all signage on all roads leading to Pontiac direct people away from Downtown.