Detroit Riverwalk Reborn


June 20, 2007

Riverfront reborn: Promenade buoys Detroit’s shoreline

Christine MacDonald and David Josar / The Detroit News

DETROIT — The abandoned cement silos and pervasive pollution, finally, are history. So are the years of indecision and missteps that left much of the Detroit riverfront, from the Renaissance Center to Belle Isle, a sorry mix of derelict buildings and struggling businesses.

Luxury housing is being built in areas that had been industrial wastelands. Whitefish, for the first time since 1916, are spawning in the Detroit River.

On Friday, the Detroit East RiverWalk, a 3.5-mile promenade from Joe Louis Arena to the Belle Isle Bridge, will host its grand opening after five years of construction, fundraising, coalition building and brainstorming.

“This is one of the most important projects our city has experienced,” said Faye Nelson, president and CEO of the RiverFront Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that will patrol and maintain the RiverWalk. “It brings people together.”

Short stretches of the RiverWalk have been open for months; Tuesday, people were already enjoying the newest addition.

“I really wanted to see it and bring the kids out so they can exercise,” said Odell Roberts, 60, from Highland Park, who was at the RiverWalk with her husband and two grandchildren.

“I think it’s wonderful.”

Added Mariel Watkins, 15, a junior at the Detroit School of Arts: “It’s the first time I’ve seen a place like this in Detroit.”

RiverWalk stars in festival

Friday is the start of Detroit International River Days, with the RiverWalk in a starring role — supported by free concerts with performers such as rocker Joan Jett and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. People are invited to walk their dogs; cyclists to ride their bikes; and anglers to participate in a fishing tournament.

The 49th annual fireworks show, a week from today, will put an exclamation point on the RiverWalk’s christening.

Parts of the RiverWalk, cobbled together from privately owned parcels and city and state land, are unfinished. But roughly three-quarters of the stretch from Joe Louis to Belle Isle is complete.

The pathway includes a Great Lakes-themed carousel. Money raised by the $2 rides will go to a RiverWalk maintenance fund. A bicycle and skating concession is planned at Chene Park. And a granite map of the Detroit River system is at Rivard Plaza.

According to the conservancy’s Web page, the group has raised about $97 million for the East RiverWalk but it needs an additional $47 million to finish the project, and to establish an endowment for ongoing maintenance, clean up crews and safety patrols.

After that work is finished, the group will begin on the West RiverWalk, which will extend down to the Ambassador Bridge.

The unveiling this week is momentous, city leaders and other say.

“It’s changing the image of the city,” said Detroit Renaissance President Doug Rothwell.

Project is major step for city

Chicago, Baltimore and Memphis have capitalized on their waterfronts as entertainment and residential districts, but that never clicked in Detroit. The RiverWalk is a major step toward turning that around.

Former Mayors Coleman A. Young and Dennis Archer had touted plans to develop the riverfront, but they failed.

Archer tried to put the city’s three casinos along the river. That plan created a legal and bureaucratic morass that destroyed what had been a growing Rivertown community of restaurants and bars: The city condemned and bought property, but the plan collapsed because it was too costly.

Shortly after his election in 2002, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick met with people interested in developing the waterfront and came up with a plan: The city would use its muscle to leverage government funding, help assemble additional land and nurture residential and commercial development. But a nonprofit — in this case the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy — would have to raise money and maintain the 62-foot-wide path for walking, biking and jogging.

Path paves shore’s future

Nothing was more symbolic of the move from the past to the future than the razing of a trio of cement silos in 2005 and 2006.

Kilpatrick, armed with hefty tax-incentives that approach nearly $100,000 per housing unit, lured several businessmen to build luxury condos. The projects are under construction.

Sidney Jones and Francesca Williams spent their lunch Tuesday walking briskly along the new riverfront path near the Renaissance Center.

“It gives you something to do other than eat,” said Williams, a Compuware administrator from Van Buren Township.

“It is an excellent path to get a walk in,” said Jones, 34, a Compuware software designer from Pontiac.

Detroit News Staff Writers Santiago Esparza and Jonnelle Marte contributed to this report. You can reach Christine MacDonald at (313) 222-2396 or


~ by Keith A. Owens on June 20, 2007.

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