MAKING A DESTINATION IN DETROIT: Riverfront poised for growth spurt
Major projects to start construction soon
May 6, 2006
BY JOHN GALLAGHER
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
Detroit is closer than ever to getting the riverfront it deserves.
With a burst of construction and family-friendly programming, the city's east riverfront will take major strides this summer and fall toward becoming the lively, year-round destination long envisioned.
The improvements will help transform a long-neglected industrial strip into what planners hope will be an upscale district of homes, shops, restaurants and public parks.
Years of planning and fund-raising are about to pay off. For starters, another 2 miles of the RiverWalk will be built. That will include two pavilions -- tented structures -- offering food, restrooms, bicycle rentals and other amenities.
By this time next year, the RiverWalk will extend over 75% of the waterfront from Joe Louis Arena to Belle Isle, says Faye Alexander Nelson, president and chief executive of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the nonprofit group that is building it.
Meanwhile, construction is expected to begin on some or all of the four major residential and retail projects planned for the east riverfront.
They are backed by General Motors Corp. and development teams that include Detroit athletes and businessmen Dave Bing and Jerome Bettis.
For Detroiters who live and work along the waterfront, the RiverWalk and new development can't come soon enough.
Mark Rieth, owner of the Atwater Block Brewery on Jos. Campau near the river, says the new projects should mean a surge in business.
"Really what we need here more than anything else are the condos and the foot traffic," Rieth said. "We do a decent lunch business, and we need to do more at night. The RiverWalk's going to be great."
Public and private leaders say the work will have benefits far beyond the riverside. In Cleveland, the waterfront entertainment district known as the Flats preceded later downtown revitalization. In San Antonio, the famed River Walk became the city's trademark attraction.
"Hopefully the riverfront will spur other development throughout the city," said Dwight Belyue, a Detroit developer whose @water Lofts retail-residential project on the east riverfront should get started this year.
Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, partnering with GM and the Kresge Foundation, announced the RiverWalk plans in late 2002. Much of the time since has been consumed with engineering and design, raising money and obtaining title to various parcels of land.
This year will mark a major transition. The cement silos that marked the east riverfront for decades have all been demolished and the sites cleared. Construction equipment and supplies are visible at many points, and work is under way.
Kilpatrick's top development aide, George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said the changes will be historic.
"This transformation from industrial to a more user-friendly neighborhood is going to have an impact not only on the people who are going to live in this district, but this is going to be a destination spot."
New construction marks only part of the progress to come this year. Also on tap:
EVENTS: The riverfront conservancy launches its family-oriented programming this summer. It's still in the planning stages, but look for a mix of concerts, cultural events, school trips and environmental programs.
The centerpiece will be a an event or festival, probably in late July, to celebrate the riverfront. Ideas are being developed, Nelson said.
The conservancy is soliciting suggestions for its programming. To offer some, call the conservancy at 313-567-4333 or visit www.detroitriverfront.org
and click on Feedback.
"We really want to kick up very aggressively the promotion of the riverfront so people know that it's open and it's real and that they can come down and enjoy themselves," she said.
"While there is a wonderful passive opportunity if you just want to come down, sit on a bench and check out the boats in a beautiful environment, we're also going to be proactive and programming the waterfront because we want this to be a destination point."
AMBASSADORS: Beginning this summer, the conservancy will station people along the RiverWalk. Like the volunteers who made Detroit's Super Bowl XL effort a success, these ambassadors will wear easily recognizable shirts, caps or jackets and will greet visitors and provide orientation.
MEMBERSHIPS: While access to the RiverWalk will remain free, the conservancy hopes to begin signing up members beginning in June. Benefits are being determined; they might include tickets to events as well as caps or shirts.
Membership levels will range from $10 a year for students and seniors to $75 for families and into the thousands of dollars for corporate levels.
As part of the membership drive, the conservancy will begin selling commemorative bricks and pavers to be installed on the RiverWalk. Bricks will go for $100, and the larger pavers for $500.
For information about memberships, programming and volunteer opportunities, visit the conservancy's Web site.
The conservancy has set a deadline of 2008 to have the entire east riverfront finished. That assumes, though, that there will be some resolution to the years-long dispute over who cleans up the Uniroyal site near Belle Isle. There will be a gap in the RiverWalk until that question is answered.
Meanwhile, the west riverfront, stretching from Joe Louis Arena to the Ambassador Bridge and beyond, remains a puzzle. The conservancy hopes to take on its redevelopment but so far doesn't have control of the land or money to do it.
It also needs a champion like GM or the Kresge Foundation, which spearheaded the east riverfront work, to tackle it.