August 22, 2014 at 11:57 am

Crafting a new vision along the Detroit riverfront

Riverfront Conservancy CEO Mark Wallace is enthusiastic about attracting development to the riverfront. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

When Mark Wallace looks out along the Detroit riverfront, he doesn’t only observe what it is now. He sees what it could be.

On his second day as president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Wallace seems at ease. Strolling around Rivard Plaza Tuesday afternoon, he possesses a sense of ownership that doesn’t just come from his title.

The riverfront is a place he’s long enjoyed. Wallace, 37, has lived in Corktown for six years, and often spends time on the Detroit River.

“I love it. I love the riverfront,” Wallace says.

His resume isn’t full of previous executive roles, nor has he ever before headed a nonprofit. Rather, he has extensive experience in real estate development. And that background signals the future mission of the conservancy — to leverage the parkway as a stimulant for redeveloping the strip of land between Jefferson Ave. and the river.

Since the nonprofit conservancy was created in 2003, the riverfront has moved from an inaccessible and ignored space to an attractive escape for families. Around 3 million visitors a year enjoy the river and its parks.

But there is much more room for growth — not only as the conservancy works to complete the five and a half mile river walk stretching from the Ambassador Bridge to Gabriel Richard Park, but also in the blocks bordering the parkway.

Wallace understands that potential. A well-developed waterfront will spill over to other projects, including additional retail and housing.

“It would be great to see new construction, and it would be great to see renovation,” he says. “There are a lot of really cool things we do.”

Earlier this summer, the conservancy board chose Wallace to lead the organization, after former CEO Faye Alexander Nelson left to become president of the DTE Energy Foundation.

Wallace has a decade of real estate development experience. He previously worked with Hines Interests LP, where he was involved with several multi-million dollar development projects in Detroit, Chicago and Toronto. One of Wallace’s recent tasks was project manager of River Point, a 1.3 million square foot development on the Chicago River.

“I understand how to take vacant property and turn it into a really special place,” Wallace says.

In a way, Wallace’s career path is taking him back to where he began: the Detroit riverfront. In 2004, as an assistant project manager for Hines, he worked on the first major portion of the new RiverWalk. After that, Wallace oversaw other major development projects in Detroit and was leasing director for the GM Renaissance Center.

Wallace has degrees in public policy from Princeton University and the University of Michigan and began his career teaching for three years at Detroit Public Schools.

Matthew Cullen, chairman of the conservancy board and president and CEO of Rock Ventures, says Wallace brings a variety of talents to the table. His real estate experience, along with his personable nature, will help him maneuver the various aspects of the job.

“Put all the characteristics together, and he was the clear choice,” Cullen says.

The conservancy board is focused on the future development around the RiverWalk, and Cullen’s boss, Dan Gilbert, has frequently said the east riverfront will be the next development frontier. Wallace believes the riverfront projects and the RiverWalk itself are likely to “stimulate the redevelopment and emergence of a fantastic district.”

He points to the Dequindre Cut greenway, a paved path leading from the river to Eastern Market, as a successful connection between the riverfront and the city. He says similar projects are on the horizon.

“We’re very interested in telling the story of the opportunity here from a real estate perspective and very interested in helping connect those dots,” Wallace says.

When he isn’t busy with his day job, Wallace plays banjo in a rock/bluegrass band. He received a Knight Foundation grant to support his project of taking reclaimed wood from abandoned Detroit homes and creating hand-made electric guitars.

Now he’s turning his ability to imagine what something could become to the Detroit riverfront.

“How do you take potential out of an old building or a vacant piece of land or waterfront and make it into the best version of what it could be?” Wallace says. “I love potential. Whether it’s in people or whether it’s in land.”

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.