Detroit's riverfront becomes regional magnet

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit -- On a recent August day, cousins Dream Matthews and Devon Willis splashed around the jets of water spewing from the ground along the Detroit RiverWalk. They consider the city's riverfront as a routine destination and ask their grandmother to take them there often.

"Free fun!" said Tracey Dudley, 51,  a lifelong Detroiter and grandmother to Dream, 8, and Devon, 5. 

Devon Willis, 5, of Detroit, enjoys the Detroit RiverWalk with his grandmother Tracey Dudley and sister Dream Matthews, 8, in Detroit  last month.

But ask her about her riverfront memories as a child and she has none. 

“We didn’t do this,” Dudley said. “They get to see different cultures of people, and they have a nice time out here.”

A bit east of where the kids play, visitors enjoy the quiet seclusion of Mount Elliott Park. Midday cyclists and joggers head north and south on the Dequindre Cut. Colleagues from the Renaissance Center take a midday walk. Every hue, shape and age that calls Metro Detroit home is visible.

For Maurice Cox, the city's planning director, these scenes are a city planner's dream come true -- a popular riverfront that attracts visitors from around the region. 

“Every time I stroll down the waterfront, I’m somewhat amazed and delighted by the racial and ethnic diversity on display,” Cox said. “I see people fishing and think ‘This is what the riverfront is all about.’ You see kids frolicking through a place like Milliken State Park, and you realize this landscape is a kind of revelation to them.”

Before Hart Plaza was built in 1975 most Detroiters' memories along the Detroit involved Belle Isle. 

Christina Cavalier, of Holly, and Gene Nearing, Dearborn Heights, enjoy the Detroit RiverWalk  last month.


Joel Stone, senior curator of the Detroit Historical Society, said that Detroit's riverfront was once so packed with industrial businesses that the city purchased Belle Isle -- which opened in 1845 -- believing it was their last chance to create the kind of waterfront park other cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland already had.

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, founded in 2003, has a vision that Detroiters will, someday, be able to walk, or jog, or bike, a contiguous, 5.5 mile path from MacArthur Bridge on the east to the Ambassador Bridge to the west.

That's a vision that hasn't been possible since before either bridge was built. Several negotiations must successfully take place before it can be realized. 

Detroit River scenes through the years


'Aghast' at Jefferson Avenue

Transforming the riverfront is not just a matter of making it attractive to visitors from Metro Detroit or out-of-town, Cox said. It's also about allowing easier access to Detroiters who live near the river but have difficulty reaching it. 

Both planners and community leaders identified Jefferson Avenue as a problem.

Aaron May, an associate director of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the design firm that authored Detroit's East Riverfront Framework plan, said planners were "aghast" when they visited Jefferson.

"We were shocked by the number of lanes it has, that it cuts off important neighborhoods like Islandview and Lafayette Park from the riverfront," May said. "You really don't have pedestrian traffic across Jefferson."

This fall, a stretch of Jefferson from Rivard to the city's eastern border is going on a "road diet," Cox said. It will be reduced from nine lanes to five, with protected bike lanes and periodic boulevards installed. There will be fewer lanes for pedestrians to cross, and the road will make room for cyclists.

The change, and residents' concerns, are not an issue of mere aesthetics. In a five-year-span, the two-mile stretch of Jefferson from Rivard to East Grand Boulevard was the scene of 1,350 car crashes, 39 pedestrian-involved car crashes, and nine fatal car crashes involving pedestrians, according to city officials.

“It’s one thing to fish on a pier,” Cox said. “It’s another thing to walk from your house to fish on the pier. It would be ridiculous if a riverfront that serves the entire metro region didn’t serve the people just a half-mile north.”

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was chosen to shepherd the East Riverfront plan into reality after a series of public meetings that often drew hundreds of participants.

Community feedback was essential in not only the decision to change Jefferson, but establishing the principle that the space between Atwater and the river must remain accessible to the public, May said.

Developments proposing otherwise have been moved back across Atwater. And only two projects remain before work on the east riverfront project is complete. Both break ground this fall.

Those are Atwater Beach, which will be man-made, and a promenade on the former Uniroyal site, which occupies the last quarter-mile of riverfront between the existing RiverWalk and Belle Isle.

The Uniroyal  site has been vacant for decades, and was environmentally remediated at great cost. Once complete, the promenade will offer an eastward view of the MacArthur Bridge that very few Metro Detroiters have been able to access since industry controlled the land. 

Rather than wait for an investment to surface, and then planning riverfront access around it, the city has decided to create public access first and fit investment, whenever it may come, around that.

“We get to build an equitable recovery with bricks and mortar,” Cox said. “I love that aspect of the work.”

“There are times in the city’s evolution where, if someone wanted to develop in Detroit, you don’t ask any questions, you just did it,” Cox continued. “Now, the city is making a choice. It’s an acknowledgement that we have a pretty unique asset, an international waterfront. Who does it belong to? Who should it belong to?”

'Like a magnet'

Durk Barton, 64, often spends four to five hours a day on the Detroit River. From a bench on the RiverWalk, Barton sells drawings of the people who sit for them -- $15 for black-and-white, $25 for color. He prefers to let his customers find their way to him to avoid trouble with security.

"I'm so glad they re-did it, and made it look nice," Barton said recently. "It's like a magnet. Before they built it like this, there were old wharfs that were broken down, torn down. It was kind of hard to even get this close to the river without hazard."

Durk Barton, of Detroit, shows off his artwork along the Detroit RiverWalk last month.


Barton also enjoys Milliken State Park, upwind to the east.

"Sometimes I go down there and just sit there and meditate, and have a great time all day," Barton said. 

From the earliest days of the conservancy, listening to those who love and use the river has been its mode of operation. So it will be as the two miles of the west riverfront are rehabbed.

“We held 100 meetings before the first shovel touched the ground” on the RiverWalk, said Mark Wallace, CEO of the conservancy since 2014. “That gave us a lot of credibility as we got started.”

The conservancy programs protect, clean and raise funds for the public lands under its control. To date, $100 million has been spent on the makeover of the east riverfront. Another $30 million is expected.

Detroiters interested in the future of the two miles of west riverfront from Joe Louis Arena to the Ambassador Bridge can share their thoughts and help select the team to do the work. Rather than one hand leading the project, as with Skidmore on the east riverfront, rehab of the west riverfront will operate on several different levels, Cox said.

Four design teams are vying for the opportunity to redesign the 22-acre West Riverfront Park, for instance.

"Detroit now gets the chance to see not just one vision, but four unique interpretations of what an inclusive West Riverfront Park can be,” Cox said, calling the finalists "amongst the best landscape architects working — anywhere."