By Jeff Alexander/Bridge Magazine contributor
Faye Nelson’s office on the 17th floor of the GM Renaissance Center provides a panoramic view of the Detroit River and a daily reminder that the Motor City — despite its problems — is still capable of grand achievements.
The proof lies in the Detroit Riverwalk, a sprawling walkway and bike path that transformed the city’s waterfront from an industrial wasteland into a recreational haven.
Nelson, the CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, has shepherded the $300 million, privately funded project from the outset. The Detroit native said she is filled with pride when she sees people using the Riverwalk for exercise, as a place to watch passing freighters and migratory birds, or simply to relax along the river.
“Growing up in Detroit, experiencing the river and all of its wonder was a part of my childhood,” Nelson said. “It was really a challenge for me to be confronted by the major decline of our community, but it’s quite an honor to be part of an organization that is leading the effort to revitalize our riverfront.”
The Detroit Riverwalk currently spans 3.5 miles of the riverfront. When completed, it will extend 5.5 miles, from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle.
With its environmentally friendly design, numerous gardens and front-row views of the Detroit River, the Riverwalk has become a popular destination for local residents and tourists. More than 1 million people visited the Riverwalk last year, Nelson said.
The Riverwalk project had two major purposes: Create a large public space on the riverfront that was visually appealing and safe, and create an attraction that could serve as a catalyst for economic development in downtown Detroit.
New businesses have sprouted along the Riverwalk and on nearby streets. Among them: Wheelhouse Detroit, a bike shop on the Riverwalk; the Roberts Riverwalk Hotel, located in the old Omni Hotel; the Elevator Building, a small business incubator on the Dequindre Cut, which links the Riverwalk to Detroit’s popular Eastern Market; and a new Detroit Port Authority terminal that will host 13 visits this summer from Great Lakes cruise ships.
“I think the Riverwalk is changing the public’s perception of Detroit,” said Kelli Kavanaugh, co-owner of Wheelhouse Detroit, which rents and sells bikes and leads bike tours around the city. “For many people, the Riverwalk has been a pleasant surprise; that may lead open them up to visiting other parts of the city where you can have pleasant experiences.”
Kavanaugh, who has reported about Detroit for online publications, said the Riverwalk has not yet reached its full potential as a catalyst for economic development.
“When all the segments of Riverwalk are connected, it’s going to be a lot more popular and more powerful as an economic development tool,” she said. “When that happens, its popularity will blow up.”
The significance of Riverwalk transforming the riverfront cannot be overstated, explains John Hartig, a Great Lakes scientist who has researched the Detroit River and sits on the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s board of directors.
“Detroit lost its connection to the river when industries lined the shoreline — industries made the river the back door instead of the front door,” Hartig said. “That’s why I think the Detroit Riverwalk is so important: It’s giving five miles of the Detroit River shoreline back to the community.”
Hartig believes Riverwalk could help Detroit reverse decades of economic decline.
“Detroit has not capitalized on its natural capital yet,” Hartig said. “Water is like a magnet for people and Detroit has one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.”
The Riverwalk project dates back to the late 1990s, when a group of Detroit civic leaders concluded the riverfront needed a makeover to make the city’s downtown an attractive place to live, work and play.
The city of Detroit helped establish the nonprofit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy; General Motors donated land along the river for the Riverwalk; and the Kresge Foundation provided a $50 million grant to get the project off to a fast start.
It has grown to a $300 million project. About $140 million of that amount will come from cash donations; the remainder will be in-kind services from government agencies and private businesses, Nelson explained.
To date, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has raised $105 million. Major funders beyond the Kresge Foundation and GM include: the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, which contributed $5 million each; the Hudson-Webber Foundation, which donated $2.5 million; and the Ford Foundation and McGregor Fund, which donated $2 million each.
Several other companies and foundations — including Compuware, Chrysler and Toyota — contributed at least $1 million each to the project, according to Detroit Riverfront Conservancy financial records.
The Conservancy owns and maintains Riverwalk and has a private security force patrol it. The Conservancy has acquired miles of land along the river, razed numerous dilapidated buildings, installed an attractive walkway and welcomed Michigan’s first urban state park: William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor.
The state park, which occupies 31 acres on the riverfront, has 52 boats slips and is within walking distance to downtown Detroit.
Perhaps most significantly, the Riverwalk has generated positive buzz for a city plagued by years of economic decay, high crime rates and the resulting negative publicity. The project has been featured in numerous regional and national publications.
Nelson said the Riverwalk, coupled with other downtown development projects, “will work to change the conversation about Detroit.”
“We see the riverfront playing a major role in the revitalization of Detroit,” Nelson said. “Riverwalk has provided a tremendous boost in quality of life for our community — it’s a place that’s clean, safe and beautiful. It’s a place we can brag about.”
Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC, as well as a writer and media consultant at the National Wildlife Federation. He’s a former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle.