Final segment of Detroit's east Riverwalk expected to be completed next year

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The first step in building the final piece of Detroit's east Riverwalk was taken Wednesday morning with a groundbreaking at Mt. Elliott Park.

When the work at the former Uniroyal site is complete in the fall of 2022 the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s vision for 3.5 miles of riverfront on Detroit's east side, between Belle Isle and the Renaissance Center, will be realized.

"It's been 20 years we've been working on this project," said Matt Cullen, chairman of the conservancy. "We promised we'd connect the east riverfront when we started."

From left, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy Chairman Matt Cullen, Chief Financial Officer William Smith and President and CEO Mark Wallace toss dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony of the Riverwalk extension at the former Uniroyal site on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The conservancy is beginning work on the final piece of its east riverfront vision with the groundbreaking of the Detroit Riverwalk extension This project will complete the goal of the 3.5 miles of riverwalk along the east riverfront and provide important connectivity between riverfront parks and Belle Isle.

He described the long-defunct Uniroyal site, abandoned in 1979, as a "desolate, underutilized part of the city," and said its narrative would now be one of accessibility.

There is still work to be done on the two miles of the western Riverwalk, which will eventually extend out to the Ambassador Bridge.

The conservancy's ultimate vision, said Chief Financial Officer William Smith, is that people will be able to walk or ride a bike the entire 5.5-mile stretch from the MacArthur Bridge at Belle Isle on the east to the Ambassador Bridge on the west.

"One day you're going to be able to walk from bridge to bridge in this city," said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Mark Wallace, CEO of the conservancy, said he recently saw high school graduates taking pictures on the riverwalk. He noted how much had changed in their lifetimes.

"Kids graduating high school today have no memories of cement factories" and other industrial sites that kept the riverfront inaccessible for so much of Detroit's history, he said.

The current project will cost $11 million. The conservancy said it has invested $200 million in riverfront restoration efforts.

The Detroit Riverwalk started in 2003 with a half-mile of walkway between the Renaissance Center and the Detroit River. General Motors, headquartered at the RenCen, was a founding partner of the conservancy and donated that land.

On Tuesday the conservancy announced a new GM gift of $2.5 million.

In 2002, the Kresge Foundation made its biggest grant at the time to the conservancy: $50 million.

"You had to have imagination to make that gift at that time," Wallace said.

Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, was not in attendance Tuesday but said in remarks read by Smith that at the turn of the century, "it was apparent that the downtown riverfront that once served Detroit's commercial boom was serving almost no one."

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is beginning work on the final piece of its east riverfront vision with the groundbreaking of the Detroit Riverwalk extension at the former Uniroyal site in Detroit on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

He added: "The city's expansive front porch was defined by empty warehouses and parking lots, beyond a few pockets of beauty. It was uninviting, unusable and inaccessible."

Today the riverwalk is visited by 3.5 million people annually, the conservancy said. And those numbers have only gone up during the pandemic. Since March 2020, riverwalk usage is up 20%, they said.