(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 18, 2016)
Pontiac, MI – In advance of the upcoming Congress of the New Urbanism Conference in Detroit June 8-11, 2016, CNU hosted development charrettes in Pontiac and Hazel Park to build examples of how thoughtful planning can help revitalize communities.
In Pontiac that meant three days of public meetings mixed with sessions where architects and developers took ideas from residents and business owners and literally brought them to the drawing table. The experts donated thousands of dollars’ worth of consulting time and renderings to help guide the city towards the brighter future that is on the horizon.
Bob Gibbs, urban planning and retail consultant director for Gibbs Planning Group of Birmingham, shared the results of research done on the Downtown Pontiac Area and project team leader Galina Tachieva, managing partner of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., helped explain what the results meant in terms of development possibilities.
Tachieva explained that the Pontiac Legacy Project’s goals were to create a vision for a remarkable, vibrant downtown to serve as a template for other downtown spaces, restore a walkable urban fabric, identify options for the Phoenix Center and Lot 9, and create a transit-ready southern edge of Downtown with the potential to become a regional transit hub. The findings were shared with interested residents over the course of a few days, including a meeting Thursday night with those in the business community.
The main concern was with eliminating the Woodward Loop, a traffic feature the planners referred to as “Wide Track Drive.” Gibbs’ research, along with previous studies, show that the loop diverts residents and shoppers away from Downtown instead of inviting people in.
“If physical improvements were made, the city could capture $52 million a year if it could draw people into downtown,” Gibbs said. “Make Wide Track Drive two way. I know it’s expensive to do, I know there are funding constraints.. but Pontiac could be as vibrant as Royal Oak. I don’t think that is out of the question. You’re the county seat for the eighth richest county in the county. You can do this.”
Gibbs’ market analysis showed the city could support an additional 45,000 square feet of department store merchandise, 38,600 square feet of grocery store goods, nearly 36,000 square feet of special food and specialty food sales, 16,300 in gift store square footage, 14,200 square feet in pharmacy, 12,700 square feet in bars, breweries and pubs, 11,600 square feet in limited service eating places, and 8,400 square feet in full-service restaurants.
Estimates are between $10 million and $20 million for the cost of making the roads two way.
If it had been up to the City and its previous emergency financial manager, the Phoenix Center would have been sold and demolished. However litigation with the owner of the adjacent Ottawa Towers has kept the building up and in a state of limbo. But whether the structure remains for valuable parking and an amphitheater on top, or whether it makes room for better road configuration and other development, the future is likely to be bright.
As the roads are, development is an uphill battle, particularly in terms of restaurants and retail. However one way to get the ball rolling might be to create an inexpensive draw with “pop up shops.” Setting up temporary sheds or container truck stores can make entrepreneurship more accessible and create some excitement to draw shoppers to the community.
Another possibility would be to create a public market. This would ideally be a covered space with welcoming features and many vendors. Gibbs said there is funding available through the US Department of Agriculture for projects along those lines.
Another development issue that comes up as people dream big about Downtown Pontiac is if the Clinton River could be “daylighted.” As Pontiac grew, the river was sealed up and put underground. While many Downtowns are built up around the beauty of a river, the experts said that in Pontiac it is just not economically feasible or practical. “You would basically have to tear up half the Downtown,” Tachieva said.
Parking, of course, is another issue for Downtowns. Given the uncertain future of the Phoenix Center, alternatives are useful to know. Tachieva said that without changing anything but the way the lines are drawn on spaces, they have identified an additional 284 spaces, which would more than double the 259 current parking space count.
Linda Hasson, a lifelong Pontiac resident, said there has been a lot of talk over the years, but that she feels differently about the CNU charrette. “You seem to really care and I appreciate that,” she said. “We need a push. I’m excited.”
The CNU team of experts will continue to work on concepts and recommendations that will be fully presented at the CNU24 conference. There will be presentations about Pontiac, Hazel Park and a couple locations in Wayne County. To learn more about the conference go to https://www.cnu.org/cnu24.
For more Pontiac stories go to http://oaklandcounty115.com/category/news-by-city/pontiac/.
Read about the Hazel Park charette at http://oaklandcounty115.com/2016/04/16/hazel-park-residents-come-together-for-john-r-design-charrette/.