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Auburn Hills began as the town of Auburn in 1821 at what is today the corner of Auburn and Squirrel Roads. Situated on the Clinton River, it was named by Aaron Webster, the first settler, for Auburn, New York. His sawmill and grist mill attracted settlers to Auburn. After the streets were laid out in 1826, Auburn rivaled nearby Pontiac until the 1860s, when it lost its prosperity. The town was renamed Amy in 1880, and it officially became Auburn Heights in 1919. The area to the north was Pontiac Township, which bordered the city of Pontiac on two sides.
In 1908, automobile pioneer John Dodge bought a farmhouse 3 miles (4.8 km) northeast of Auburn Heights to use as his country retreat. His oldest child, Winifred Dodge, married real estate baron Wesson Seyburn, who built his own country retreat 2.5 miles (4.0 km) north of Auburn Heights. The estate included hunting land, dog kennels, a swimming pool, horse stables, and a 5,000-square-foot (460 m2) Colonial Revival house. Pontiac Township purchased the estate in 1976, and adapted the buildings for government use. Today, it is known as the Auburn Hills Civic Center.
Pontiac Township and Auburn Heights together became the City of Auburn Hills in 1983. The first use of the name "Auburn Hills," in 1964, was by Oakland Community College. They named their campus (a former Nike missile base) at Featherstone and Squirrel roads for the town and the hilly terrain in the area. Besides Oakland Community College, two other colleges, Oakland University, and Baker College, have campuses partially within the city limits.
Auburn Hills roughly follows the course of Interstate 75 and is home to a prosperous business community. In the early 1980s, Oakland University partnered with developers to create a technology and research park on unused land it owned. The Oakland Technology Park was approved by the city in 1985, with Comerica, EDS, and Chrysler to build campuses there. Today, the city's many tech and office buildings cause its population to swell to 80,000 during the workday.
Many areas of the city still have a rural atmosphere, but land is being developed fast. Great Lakes Crossing, a shopping mall, opened in 1998. In 2002, the small downtown area at Auburn and Squirrel was revitalized as the "Village Center" with streetscape improvements. Pedestrian-friendly development is encouraged in this district.