Upscale riverfront development in Detroit moves forward

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
A $65 million, 270-aparment complex called Orleans Landing has its groundbreaking on an empty patch of Atwater.

The long-deferred dream of creating an upscale neighborhood along downtown Detroit’s riverfront gets a kick-start Tuesday morning.

A $65 million, 270-apartment complex called Orleans Landing has its groundbreaking on an empty patch of Atwater. There’s no doubt: It’s a sweet location. Orleans Landing will be next to the new Michigan Department of Natural Resources Outdoor Adventure Center and the Dequindre Cut pedestrian/bike path.

The Detroit River is one block away. Downtown, Belle Isle, Eastern Market are all just minutes away.

“The first market-rate new residential construction project on Detroit’s East Riverfront in 25 years,” declares the press release by the project’s developer, McCormack Baron Salazar.

That’s not quite true. The new Water’s Edge at Harbortown, 3500 E. Jefferson, is now taking reservations for its 134 units, where monthly rents range from $1,500 to $2,000. The units are expected to be ready for occupancy by the end of the year.

One thing is true. The promise of filling the east riverfront with a mix of upscale housing and inviting public spaces continues to be a major goal of city officials and developers. East riverfront runs from downtown along the Detroit River and south of Jefferson Avenue to the MacArthur Bridge leading to Belle Isle Park. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was mainly an industrial and warehouse district.

“The riverfront could be the next major neighborhood,” said Eric Larson, CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

It isn’t the first time the riverfront’s rebirth has been predicted. About 18 years ago, then-Mayor Dennis Archer began a plan to build the city’s three casinos and an entertainment district along the east riverfront. It created a legal and bureaucratic quagmire, destroying what had been an eclectic area of restaurants and bars.

The city condemned and bought property, but the plan collapsed because it was too costly. Some of the last empty buildings near the riverfront are the bars and eateries that got cleared out for the casinos, which eventually were built elsewhere.

It was nine years ago this week then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick declared Detroit’s ugly, industrial-scarred riverfront a thing of the past and touted developments that included million-dollar penthouses. The national recession killed those projects.

Last year, east riverfront’s promise played a key role in helping Detroit get out of bankruptcy. It was prime pieces of riverfront property, including Joe Louis Arena, that convinced the city’s last two major holdout creditors agreed to stop battling the deal that allowed Detroit to exit bankruptcy.

“The progress of downtown’s riverfront is clear and it’s why it would attract even a creditor who is determined to get money out of Detroit,” said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor who closely follows Detroit’s development scene.

While the previous attempts to transform the area failed, Mogk and other say it did succeed in helping the city assemble land. Ugly concrete silos have been cleared. And businesses and foundations created the Detroit RiverWalk, a pedestrian and bike pathway said to attract 3 million people a year.

Further, the riverfront has seen more than $1 billion in investment over the past decade and another $1 billion is expected to be invested in the next 10 years, city officials say.

Orleans Landing is expected to open late next year. And if things go as planned, a second phase will add 230 more rental units.

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN