Oakland Towne Center, Pontiac, MI

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At the center of Pontiac, MI sits a 15-story art deco building known as the Oakland Towne Center:

Pontiac, halfway between Detroit and Lansing, is the birthplace of Madonna and Jack Kevorkian. It is the once-home of Pontiac Cars and the seat of Oakland County, the wealthiest county in Michigan. In 2017, Michigan Public Radio wrote that Pontiac is “a city that seems to be defined by things that are dying or just not there anymore.”

Constructed in 1929, this building was built as a new home for the Pontiac State Bank. At the time, Pontiac was home to nearly 65,000 residents, an explosion from what had been a sub-10k population at the turn of the 20th century.

A full-page spread dedicated to the bank’s opening in the Detroit Jewish News writes that: “To us this building is, and will ever be, a witness to a man’s triumph over difficult odds….”

The quote is referring to the efforts of the Bank’s President, Jacob Kovinsky, a polish immigrant who—having only $213 dollars to his name— chose to come to Pontiac because the city was “rampant with possibilities.” He began by buying and selling scrap metal, working his way up to become a prominent businessman in the community and eventually spearheading the construction of this building, the city’s first skyscraper.

The Pontiac State Bank was later bought by the National Bank of Detroit in 1983, which in turn was eventually purchased by JP Morgan. This merger was facilitated by deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s that moved the banking industry to greater consolidation and conglomeration:

“The number of banks on the FDIC's rolls declined from 14,392 to 7,511 between 1984 and 2004, the proportion of the assets in the banking sector held by the 10 biggest banks increased sharply to almost 60%, by 2005.”

Today, the Oakland Towne Center building is unused, but it is in talks to be redeveloped by the Indian Hill District investment group:

“The largest of the projects would be a $15.6 million renovation of the 135,000-square-foot Oakland Towne Center at 28 N. Saginaw St., a 15-story building that would be converted into nearly 100 loft apartments and 40,000 square feet of Class A office space, plus retail and restaurant space.”

This move follows industrial reinvestment into the city (see below).

The history of the Oakland Towne Center building has paralleled the boom-bust cycles of the local Pontiac economy, which in turn has paralleled the stories of many Michigan towns.

Originally, the area was settled by Odawa Indians. Over the course of the 19th century, the Odawa were pressured to cede all of their lands in Michigan and were moved to areas of Kansas.

In 1818—after the tribes had already ceded the majority of their land—a group of investors named the new city Pontiac in honor of the leader of the Odawa in the 1700s.

The top of the Oakland Towne Center pays homage to Chief Pontiac:

After settlement, Pontiac became a mill town. As industrialization progressed, it grew first into a hotspot for the carriage industry, and then a hub for the horseless carriage industry at the turn of the 20th century:

“Pontiac found itself at the center of the American industrial revolution.” (source)

By the 1920s, Pontiac was home to several automotive assembly plants. It was a destination for thousands of Black Americans fleeing Jim Crow Laws in the south during the Great Migration. In 1930, the city had a payroll of $24 million (about $400 million in today’s dollars). It was during this zenith that the Oakland Towne Center building opened.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression devastated both the Pontiac and US economy. While the US economy grew rapidly after WW2, Pontiac stagnated due to a confluence of factors, often grouped broadly into the trend of suburbanization.

Several government plans to redevelop the city in the 1960s and 1970s failed.

In the 2000s, The Great Recession, and the bankruptcy of General Motors, lead to the death of the Pontiac car and the further gutting of Pontiac:

“The problem in Pontiac is probably just a microcosm of what exists in many other cities in the country in the sense that [local government] revenue is declining rapidly.” (source).

Unemployment in the city soared above 30% and Michigan placed the city under the jurisdiction of emergency management, who championed wholesale budget cuts:

“The city workforce has been slashed from 600 to only 50, while nearly all city assets have been sold off to private companies and nearly all city services have been outsourced, privatized or transferred to other jurisdictions.” (source).

As of 2020, following the development of Detroit, Pontiac is seeing a tentative resurgence. As one headline reads:“With 38 active building projects, Pontiac seeing biggest boom since GM days.”

This includes industry moving back to the area:

“New businesses are opening in town and development projects are giving residents hope for a brighter future…employers range from engine manufacturer Williams International, which moved to the city last year, to retail giant Amazon, which plans to build fulfillment and distribution centers on the site of the former Pontiac Silverdome starting [in 2020] in a $250 million project that will create 1,500 jobs.”

The trend is further supported by a change in living preferences among young people—the second reversal the Oakland Towne Center has seen during its lifetime. As article reads:

“With millennials' desire to live, work and play in downtown settings, many people are expressing support in the rebirth of Pontiac to be the bookend on the other side of the Woodward corridor.”

A postcard from the 20s or 30s depicts the Oakland Towne Center building: