Detroit — The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, the nonprofit that helped spark $1 billion in investment along downtown’s waterfront, has won a prominent national award for its planning and execution.
The conservancy has won an American Planning Association 2014 Excellence award for a project demonstrating “significant achievement ... in accomplishing positive changes,” according to the national organization. The group is made up of academics and planners — mainly architects, engineers, and economic development officials — in the public and private sector.
It’s the first time in recent history, and possibly ever, a Michigan project has been awarded an excellency award by the association, officials said. Several hundred projects nationwide were nominated and the conservancy is one of 18 projects that has won excellence awards in various categories this year.
“The success of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy at emphasizing Detroit’s beautiful new riverfront exemplifies what can happen when turning a comprehensive plan into reality,” said Ann Bagley, chairwoman of the juried APA excellency award, in a press release issued Wednesday.
The Detroit conservancy is the force behind the downtown RiverWalk pedestrian/bike path and other improvements near the river’s edge that’s draw more than 3 million people annually. More than two-thirds of those visitors come specifically downtown to be on the RiverWalk, according to a 2013 study.
Before the conservancy’s effort, much of the 3.5-mile stretch was industrial, with little public access and marked with crumbling buildings and vacant lots. The ultimate goal is to redesign a 5.5 mile area with plazas, pathways, pavilions and green spaces, stretching from Belle Isle to the Ambassador Bridge.
According to the conservancy, the RiverWalk has significantly benefited the community by:
■ Hosting the River Days festival that draws 150,000 people each summer.
■ Increasing the area’s popularity, bringing in $1 billion in public and private investments to date, with an estimated additional $1 billion to come in the future.
■ Generating approximately $4.5 million in annual tax revenue.
The conservancy was launched in 2003 by three key partners: the city of Detroit, which provided the land and infrastructure improvements, including the demolition of industrial silos; General Motors Co., which invested $25 million in renovations at the Renaissance Center, including the building of the GM Plaza and the first half mile of pathway; and the Kresge Foundation, which provided its largest grant ever to a single project — a $50 million challenge grant.
The conservancy is about $19 million shy of its $140 million goal to create an endowment to support perpetual maintenance and operations of the RiverWalk.