Unearthing the Clinton River as economic development in Pontiac

The vision is to have a river running through downtown Pontiac, one with restaurants, offices and shops alongside and perhaps small boats bringing in people and, ideally, ripples of prosperity.

The Clinton River is currently covered up, piped underground beneath a parking lot and the Phoenix Center, a deteriorating city-owned structure that could come down if the vision to daylight the Clinton River is actually pursued. The river opens up on either side of downtown.

As it is now, the Phoenix Center is used only occasionally.

"By daylighting the Clinton River, if it winds up with a river walk along it, it's going to be something that can be used everyday," says Bill Watch, chairman of the Urban Land Institute Michigan.

The idea of daylighting the river, something done in other cities, including Kalamazoo, is being explored with a feasibility study in a partnership between the Urban Land Institute, Oakland County and the city of Pontiac.

In June, students from the institute's Larson Center for Leadership, 34 of them considered business leaders, will come up with a document that outlines what it would take as far as a process, expenses and time to uncover the river.

The student leaders work in real estate, development, planning and other areas and will complete the "Daylighting the Clinton River" feasibility study in order to graduate from Larson.

In part they will determine if the benefits of uncovering the river outweigh the costs. One cost barrier is out of the way as the county has agreed to pay for the demolition of the Phoenix Center, which has seen better days.

"Oakland County had come to us in the fall and they wanted ULI's help to study this," Watch says. "This is something they've been thinking about.The county wants to do something for downtown Pontiac. It's a sort of legacy project."

Uncovering the river, if approved, wouldn't take all that long, he says. It's bringing the investors and companies and residents in to build there, work, and live there.

"It's not going to happen tomorrow. It will be years or even decades," he says. "But this is going to be something that could provide an attraction. It will give Pontiac a feature to bring people in."

The Clinton River was once a scenic gathering place for downtown Pontiac, but it also came with flood issues. It was paved over, built on and covered with drainage projects in an era when the economic draw of having a town on a river -- if well designed -- was less appreciated.

San Antonio's Riverwalk was a flood control project turned top tourist attraction for the Texas city.

"On a smaller scale this is what the Clinton River could become," Watch says. "Kalamazoo daylighted the river there and we'll be looking to them to learn about their experience."

Oakland County  Executive L. Brooks Patterson has called for daylighting the river for several months now, telling the Oakland Press in June, "Every city would love to have a river running through it, and the ones that do use it very well. The river becomes a focal point....I think that's in Pontiac's future."

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Bill Watch, Michigan chairman, Urban Land Institute
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