Metro Detroit Catholic churches prepare for protests, disruptions following abortion ruling

Belle Isle shutdown fuels Grand Prix frustrations

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
People enjoy the warm weather at the beach on Belle Isle in Detroit on Tuesday, a day after the island was closed to vehicle traffic due to overcrowding concerns.

Detroit — State officials say an influx of beachgoers and packed parking lots prompted a Memorial Day "judgment call" to close off Belle Isle to avoid further overcrowding.

The controversial shutdown to vehicle traffic comes as access on the western portion of the island is limited by setup for this weekend's Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

The race footprint has long frustrated some residents who argue it's limited their enjoyment of the park. But state parks and law enforcement staff said they don't believe race-related closures were to blame for Monday's capacity concerns.

"It was a judgment call. We basically had exceeded capacity," said Ron Olson, parks and recreation chief for the State Department of Natural Resources, on Tuesday. "This is very much of an anomaly that occurred because of extreme temperatures. We didn't close it the last Memorial Day or the one before that or the one before that."

The mid-90s heat drew thousands to the island park, leaving vehicles backed up along Jefferson to Mount Elliott, Olson said. The surge in visitors resulted in blocked bike lanes, double parking and safety concerns leading state police, parks conservation officers and staff to impose the closure.

Michigan State Police shut down vehicle traffic for about five hours beginning at 4 p.m. It remained opened Monday to foot traffic and bicyclists. 

Officials do conduct car counts on the island, but Monday's total was not immediately available, Olson said.

The park has about 3,500 parking spots. Olson could not say how many of the spaces were full on the Monday holiday, nor could he cite the specific number unavailable due to closures associated with the Grand Prix on the island's west end.

"The access does get reduced, there's no question about that, as we get closer to the race," said Olson, adding the park still would have been "overflowing with people, regardless."

"It would have helped if we had all parking spots (available), but the reality of it is based on the staff's estimation, it still would have been overcrowded even with the fewer spots affected by the Grand Prix."

Staff also opened up the park's central avenue on Monday for holiday visitors to "try to provide as much access as they could." The change left just about 10 percent of the island inaccessible based on the race-related closures, Olson said.

There was also a deliberate plan by Grand Prix staff, he said, to stay out of the roadways over the holiday weekend and confine work to grandstands and other areas that wouldn't disrupt use of the park.

As of Tuesday, closer to 20 percent of the island is restricted as the prix races near, he said. 

Sandra Novacek, a coordinator of Belle Isle Concern, a group of park users who have advocated for the protection of the island, said the west end closure caused by Grand Prix was clearly a factor in the overcrowding.

The group held a rally Saturday in opposition to the race being held on the island, saying it doesn't oppose the racing event, but Belle Isle is not where it belongs. This year's race is the final one covered under a five-year agreement and organizers have yet to submit a proposal to continue it on the island in the future.

It's obvious, Novacek said, that there was no activity in the area of the island — along the shoreline or at picnic spots — near areas where access is limited because of the race.

"When you've got an island that is 20 percent not available that means it's less space for people to go on," she said. "The more people that come, they are going to have to shut the park down sooner because there's less space for people to go.

" ... It's really the only place for many people that live in the city to go. It's the only beach that we have."

A spokesman for the Grand Prix could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday. Race officials have made changes in recent years to minimize the footprint of the race as well as the length of time that it restricts access to some portions of the island. This year, set up and tear-down for the race is slated to last 68 days, that's down 27 days from 2015, organizers say. The work began on April 16 and is expected to conclude by June 23. 

Grand Prix organizers have said that the three-day event — held on the island periodically since 1992 and every year since 2012 — draws between 90,000 and 100,000 fans primarily from Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. 

A shutdown based on overcrowding due to the race festivities hasn't taken place since vehicles on the island are confined to law enforcement and staff, with spectators arriving primarily via shuttle bus, said Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw, who added the Grand Prix "had nothing to do with our decision" to close Monday.

"It was a hot day, and the island is very popular now," Shaw said of the park that logged 4.2 million visitors for 2017.  "We've seen attendance rise over the last three years, and we expect it to rise this year, too."

At least one other state park closed to traffic Monday based on capacity issues. Holland State Park in Ottawa County shut down at 10 a.m., Olson said.

"It's way more common on some of beach parks along Lake Michigan than Belle Isle by a long shot," he said.

Monday's closure isn't the first for Belle Isle in response to large crowds historically, or since the state assumed its 30-year lease of Belle Isle from the city in 2014.

State officials shut down vehicle traffic a couple of years ago during a large function at the Belle Isle Casino that caused cars to back up along the Jefferson bridge. Island access is also limited during the city's annual fireworks display, Olson noted. During the June event, staff distributes only a certain number of vouchers to incoming vehicles based on available parking spaces. 

Additionally, the city of Detroit had closed Belle Isle down to vehicle traffic at least four times in the decade before the state assuming its lease of the island as a state park, said Brad Dick, Detroit's general services director.

In previous years, Dick said the department opted for closures in consultation with law enforcement. Among the instances, he recalled, was a similar day in May with unusually high temperatures. 

"Usually, it closed for health and safety purposes," he said, noting conditions that would have impaired the ability of emergency vehicles to get through. "The weather conditions combined with a holiday, it's a perfect storm for people wanting to cool off. They felt it was the proper thing to do."

Shaw said there's not a set threshold for shutting down the park, but it's always measured from the public safety standpoint. Shaw said that he doesn't believe officers issued tickets or made arrests on Monday, but there were some vehicles towed.

"You have got to park in a parking spot, and you've got to follow the rules," he said. "Public safety always comes first."