After 40 years, Detroit’s riverfront goes from factories and shipping to housing, retail, recreation

Posted on June 25, 2012

Back in the mid-1970s, Detroit recreation planner Harriet Saperstein and many others began to think about transforming the city’s waterfront.

Long used for factories and shipping, the riverfront seemed ripe for recreation and urban living. But how to make the transformation happen?

Some 40 years since that transformation began, Detroit’s riverfront today is closer than ever to becoming the lively urban attraction planners envisioned for so long. The city’s RiverWalk, begun in 2002, now covers about 2.5 to 3 miles of waterfront. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the riverfront each year, many for popular annual events such as the Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend, River Days, happening this weekend, and the Target Fireworks, set for Monday.

Nobody thinks the transformation of the riverfront is done. Gaps are yet to be filled in the RiverWalk, and plans to develop upscale housing and retail along Atwater Street remain unfulfilled for now, victims of the recession.

The federal government delivered some welcome news Friday: A $10-million award to improve the bike and pedestrian connections between downtown Detroit and the RiverWalk, Eastern Market, Midtown and Hamtramck.

But Saperstein, who still visits the waterfront and Belle Isle on a regular basis from her Lafayette Park home, said the vision developed for the riverfront in the 1970s continues to motivate fans of the waterfront today.

“You stay patient and persistent, and you come at it again and again and again,” she said earlier this month.

Planners say the riverfront eventually will offer economic as well as recreational opportunities. As the housing market recovers, city officials and developers look forward to the construction of hundreds or even thousands of upscale condos and rental apartments and retail stores, investments that could total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The first transformative projects on the riverfront included three modest parks built during Mayor Coleman Young’s administration. Much of that work has now been incorporated into the RiverWalk.

Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, said earlier this month that construction will begin this year on filling some gaps on the RiverWalk. Plans will include a remaking of the park at the foot of Mt. Elliott, a new parking area for Gabriel Richard Park just east of the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle, and the scheduling of construction to extend the RiverWalk across the long-vacant Uniroyal site near Belle Isle.

Meanwhile, work should begin soon on transforming the historic but derelict Globe Trading Building at Orleans and Atwater into a Department of Natural Resources discovery center. The state also is planning to enhance the nearby William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor.

“When you look at communities throughout the country, their riverfronts were not developed overnight,” Nelson said. “Over the last number of years, we have worked to develop the foundation, the anchor, from which we anticipate that a lot of development will spring.”

George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said new mixed-use residential and retail projects are in the works to replace the stalled projects. One or more could break ground in the next couple of years.

“You’re going to see a neighborhood on our east riverfront,” Jackson said this month. “It’s going to transform into a very unique neighborhood feel, but at the same time, it will be a destination, too.”

If the vision for the riverfront remains years away from fulfillment, the gaps haven’t prevented Detroiters and other visitors from enjoying what’s there now.

Matt Miller, 31, of Gibraltar didn’t even know about the RiverWalk until this spring, when he started working as a steam fitter welder at Joe Louis Arena and Cobo Center, piping in new chillers.

Now, he eats lunch on the river every day, unless it’s raining.

“It’s a part of downtown Detroit I never knew was here,” he said earlier this month during a break. “I was surprised by it. I’d never heard of it. Holy cow, this is nice.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, the RiverWalk bustled with everyone from joggers and children squealing in the General Motors fountain to lunchtime speed walkers and dog walkers. A couple of tourists made their way down the stretch, while fishermen cast their lines off the shore, hoping to catch bass. A group of women rented bikes at the Wheelhouse bike shop at Rivard Plaza.

John Jamian, executive director of the Wayne County Port Authority, sees greater use ahead for the authority’s new headquarters and dock on the riverfront near the Renaissance Center, which opened last year.

More Great Lakes cruise ships are expected to visit the city this year, and Jamian is working on attracting several U.S. Navy vessels later this year. For this year’s Grand Prix auto races on Belle Isle, the Port Authority ran a ferry service from downtown to the island that carried 1,600 passengers over the three days of the event.

“We had a lot more demand than we had supply, which is always a good thing,” Jamian said earlier this month.

Jeanae Saunders, relaxing recently near the Stroh River Place complex overlooking the blue water, said she enjoys walking, jogging and in-line skating along the Detroit River.

“It’s always relaxing. I get enjoyment being on the river,” said the 32-year-old Detroiter and business owner. But she wished the RiverWalk was a continuous stretch. “I’d like to see it go straight through,” she said.

It will, someday, Nelson and other advocates promise. The 40-year transformation of the Detroit riverfront continues.

“We’re certainly not there,” Nelson said. “But I am so optimistic. The community has fallen in love with the riverfront. We have barely scratched the surface.”

By: John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press