Change Comes to a Suburb That Loved Sprawl

An almost perfect square just over 30 miles on a side, Oakland County, Michigan, is a patchwork of 62 different municipalities. They range from historic streetcar suburbs bordering the city of Detroit to rural townships dotted with centennial farms and horse stables. Oakland is also home to posh subdivisions where metro Detroit’s business elite come home to tennis courts and swimming pools: The county boasts seven of the ten wealthiest zip codes in Michigan, and despite a slight post-recession slip, it has made a perennial appearance among the richest counties with a population over 1 million in the United States, alongside heavyweights like Fairfax County, Virginia.

Between 1950 and 2000, as Detroit’s population fell by half, Oakland County tripled in size. Fueled by white flight and auto industry wealth, its growth spread outward along multilane thoroughfares lined with gas stations and shopping centers (including what by one definition was America’s first mall). This archetypical American suburban pattern is something that its longtime county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, was famous for celebrating. The idea that sprawl made the American dream possible served not only as Patterson’s personal philosophy, but as a mission statement for the entire county. “One man’s sprawl,” Patterson was fond of saying, “is another man’s economic development.”

Patterson was a colorful, controversial figure who dominated Oakland County politics for more than a quarter century, and his death this past August (in office, at age 80) left a gaping power vacuum. But after what the Detroit Free Press called “a tumultuous two weeks of backroom politics,” the county’s Board of Commissioners appointed Democrat David Coulter, mayor of the inner-ring suburb of Ferndale, to succeed him.

Coulter is not only the first Democrat but also the first openly gay person to hold the office of Oakland county executive. And while he’s far from a ban-all-cars radical, he does see sprawl very differently from Patterson, who defended highway expansion, opposed regional planning, and resisted asking exurban communities to help fund transit projects. This changing of the guard could be the first step toward a different Oakland County, and a sign that even the most stubbornly suburban of suburbs can adapt to a more dense and urban future.

“Over the past three decades, cities [in Oakland County] with the most people have felt left out of a lot of policies,” says David Woodward, chair of the county board of commissioners. A Democrat who represents the cities of Berkeley and Royal Oak, Woodward is part of a slim majority that backed Coulter’s appointment (although he initially made his own bid for the top job). “Brooks was a barrier to regional cooperation, to transit. Now a lot of things that looked impossible a year ago are not only possible, but we’re making real progress.”

Coulter is a slim, polite 59-year old who is as much the abrasive Patterson’s opposite in temperament as he is politically. He began an interview with CityLab by avowing that “the new exec is not a fan of sprawl.” Instead, he said, “I think that it’s in our interest to make sure that our policies help promote denser growth. We have a lot of great older communities. I’m a free market guy, and if people want to live elsewhere, I don’t think we should penalize that. But I don’t think that we should subsidize it either.”

Despite Patterson’s larger-than-life persona, county executive is not an all-powerful position. In Michigan, education, zoning and many other key services are controlled at a more local level, with counties in charge of courts and public health, as well as some roads, certain parks, and the sheriff’s department. But Oakland County has an annual budget of more than $900 million, and its deep pockets and planning expertise can be deployed to assist legacy cities with infrastructure programs—or put toward subsidizing development in the exurbs, such as by expanding county roads. And it’s the executive who sets the tone for Oakland’s relationship with the city of Detroit, which under Patterson was often antagonistic and poisoned by racism. Patterson declined, for example, to be part of a new Detroit Regional Partnership; Coulter joined the board immediately.

“Metro Detroit isn’t growing as a region—it’s just shifting,” says Coulter, who spent his first few months in office shuttling around the county, meeting with officials and holding listening sessions with constituents. Oakland County’s fate is connected to that of the struggling city to the southeast. Since its 2013 bankruptcy, Detroit has experienced a much-heralded “comeback” that has succeeded in making headlines and drawing jobs and investment downtown. But that revival has not boosted the whole metro. Recent census data has shown that the region’s exurbs have continued to grow, while Detroit and many neighboring cities have continued to shrink. “It’s a zero-sum game,” says Coulter. “I’m much more interested in how to bring more people to the region.”

One way to do that may be to finally build more robust regional transit system. In 2016, voters narrowly rejected a $4.6 billion bus rapid transit and rail plan that would have connected Detroit’s Wayne County with neighboring Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties. Like 237 other cities in 2017, Detroit made a play for Amazon’s second headquarters, with a scheme that would have involved substantial investment in Oakland County. When the HQ2 bid failed, some Detroit-area business leaders and politicians blamed the transit shortfall, calling this a “wake-up call” for a Detroit metro that had gone all-in on suburban sprawl. But a 2018 plan never made it before voters: Patterson argued that Oakland’s outlying townships neither needed, wanted, nor could afford to pay for “a tax machine from which they can expect little or no return on their investment.”

In contrast, Coulter has declared that he will be a “champion” of regional transit—and given how narrow the initial defeat was, that could make all the difference. In November, he appeared with other regional leaders to announce legislation that would give Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties the power to negotiate a transit plan among themselves—a first step toward putting a revised plan before voters in 2020.

Like his predecessor once argued of sprawl, Coulter touts better regional transit as an economic development tool: “If we’re going to try to keep our young talent here, we’re going to have to compete with other regions in the country.”

The change in leadership has Detroit’s transit boosters thinking positively. “I am pretty optimistic,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a local advocacy group. “When Brooks Patterson passed away and Dave Coulter was appointed executive, that was a watershed moment and a huge opportunity for regional transit. Dave Coulter understands what regional transit could mean—not only for urbanized communities, but for the county as a whole.”

In that way, she says, Coulter is more in-step with changing suburban demographics and preferences in a region where immigrant communities are growing, populations are aging, and young professionals are more likely to want to live in walkable communities. “We look back 20 years ago, and there was much more of an attitude of, ‘Transit? Who cares! We’re the Motor City!’” Owens says. “Now, the conversation is more about, ‘What kind of transit?’”

The county commission appointed Coulter under the assumption that he would not run for a full term, but at the end of October he changed his mind, announcing a run in 2020. The fact that he is hitching his candidacy to regional transit suggests Coulter sees no political danger in championing a more urbanist, less sprawling future. He’s also aware that Oakland—which has the largest economy in Michigan, and which has long been known among those who follow county governments for its sound fiscal management and sterling AAA bond rating—is in the position to set an example not only in Southeast Michigan but for suburbs nationwide.

“There’s this curious transition period after a legend who was running the county for decades has—unfortunately—passed,” Coulter says. “There’s a lot of interest in what might happen here. A lot of folks are looking at me and my administration to say, ‘What’s going to change?’ Well, I’d like Oakland to be more sustainable. That’s the vision that I have for the county, and it seems to be resonating. I think people here are ready for that.”

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