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Detroit's Riverfront Vision


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TOM WALSH: Cash, confidence bolster builders' vision for Detroit RiverWalk

December 16, 2003



Detroit's grand $500-million vision for creating a bustling downtown riverfront of linked parks and showpiece developments is actually happening.


That's the message of an elaborate event to be staged today by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to show off the design of the 3-mile eastern section of the RiverWalk by the project's lead architect, SmithGroup JJR.

There's also hard evidence, one year after the project's launch by Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, that dreamy talk is being replaced by real cash and construction activity:

The Kresge Foundation, which pledged a $50-million series of grants to build the RiverWalk that links different elements of the vision together, voted last week to accelerate its timetable for the release of the money. Kresge put up $5.5 million a year ago and another $5 million in June. When it came time to release another $5 million this month, the foundation voted to pay out $10 million instead. "We're so pleased with the way it's coming together," Kresge Foundation President John Marshall III said.

Agreement has been reached on the size (31 acres) and boundaries of Tricentennial State Park, Michigan's first urban state park. A lighthouse at the entrance to the St. Aubin Marina at the east end of the park is under construction.

The vision has been extended to the 1.5-mile stretch of waterfront from Hart Plaza to Ambassador Bridge, dubbed the western riverfront, that will include an extension of the RiverWalk. Chan Krieger & Associates of Cambridge, Mass., has been selected to lead a design process for the western riverfront, and two community meetings have been held to get input from people in that area.

Requests for proposals to build housing on the site of the former Uniroyal factory west of Belle Isle will probably be issued within four months. The RiverWalk and a narrow slice of park space will probably take up about 15 acres of the Uniroyal site directly along the Detroit River, but about two-thirds of the 50-acre property is earmarked for residential and possibly some retail development.

In a city dogged by a history of grandiose plans coming to naught, the fact that Kresge is not only making good on its $50-million promise but accelerating payments is a very pleasant surprise.

What made that possible that the Detroit-area corporations and other foundations quickly raised most of the matching grants Kresge had requested.

In return for its $50-million donation, Kresge asked that other groups match it with $25 million, and more than $17 million of that match has already been pledged. Major companies promised $12.5 million via Detroit Renaissance, the Hudson-Webber Foundation pledged $2.5 million, and the McGregor Foundation recently chipped in another $2 million.

At today's 10 a.m. event, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy President and CEO Faye Nelson, along with cochairman Matt Cullen of General Motors Corp. and Derrick Miller, the city's chief administrative officer, will show off an 11-foot-long display of the east riverfront plan at a Renaissance Center conference room.

Patrick Doher, the SmithGroup architect in charge of the RiverWalk, said visitors will see and feel several aspects of life in Detroit as they walk, jog, bicycle or in-line skate along the RiverWalk. "In the RenCen area, where 20,000 people work each day, I call that the urban core district," he said. "Then you transition to the maritime district once you enter the state park and see the harbor and the marina. Later there's the entertainment district around Chene Park, and eventually the adaptive reuse district when you reach Stroh River Place, the Talon Group office building and the Uniroyal site."

Most of the RiverWalk will run alongside the waterfront, but the design shows it jogging inland after passing the St. Aubin Marina and running behind the Cemex Inc. cement silos. The city has persuaded two other cement companies to move their operations from the eastern riverfront but hasn't convinced Cemex to move.

The RiverWalk will also jog inland around Chene Park and at the Harbortown residential complex.

Although portions of the SmithGroup design are considered complete enough to proceed with the awarding of engineering contracts, some question marks remain.

What of Ford Auditorium, for example, west of GM's RenCen headquarters? "I think you have to consider Ford Auditorium holistically with whatever the ultimate plan for Cobo Center is," Cullen said, referring to discussions about possible expansion of Cobo at its site or building a new convention center away from the river.

And what about the so-called beacons, the signature architectural elements previously mentioned by RiverWalk organizers, which might rise 100 to 200 feet at several points along the path? Right now, there are no beacons in the design for public display today, but they could be added later.

Whatever details remain to be settled, and there are plenty, they shouldn't detract from the main message of today's event, said Nelson, which is "that it's real, and that it will happen."

"And that the pace is going to do nothing but quicken," Cullen added.

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or [email protected]

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