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State park in Detroit to open Thursday

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Urban oasis signals riverfront change

State park in Detroit to open Thursday

May 17, 2004

BY HUGH MCDIARMID JR.

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Beyond the graffiti-spattered buildings and razor-wire fence along St. Aubin Street comes an abrupt change on the bland urban palette: a 31-acre patch of greenspace shaded by willows and flowering fruit trees.

And where the greenery ends at the Detroit River, the exclamation point: a working 63-foot-tall lighthouse.

It is Michigan's first urban state park.

Thursday, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick will glide past the lighthouse on the 43-foot Great Lakes law enforcement boat, the William Alden Smith, and declare Tri-Centennial State Park and Harbor open for business.

"It's a historic step in the transformation of our riverfront from industrial to public access," says George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Group.

The 2 p.m. opening is expected to draw hundreds of people, including leaders from Michigan's conservation, environmental, political and outdoor sporting communities.

The day's events will resound with significance beyond the park's modest boundaries. Kilpatrick has promised to create a 3-mile RiverWalk dotted with public parks from Hart Plaza, in the heart of downtown, to the Belle Isle bridge. A vibrant mix of retail, residential and commercial development are planned for the strip between the riverfront greenspaces and Jefferson Avenue.

The opening of Tri-Centennial Park in the middle of the planned RiverWalk is a brick-and-mortar sign of progress.

"It's a tangible thing for Detroit citizens to realize this is a real, tangible, development plan," says K. L. Cool, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, which will run the park and harbor.

Cool, who leaves the DNR's helm May 31, says he would have left months ago -- when it became clear Granholm had no desire to see his contract renewed -- but for one thing: Thursday's ceremony.

"It's a project I envisioned in 1996 when I came here, and I stayed for this purpose," he says.

In the shadow of cement plant silos on each side of the park last week, Jerome Frank says he has fished off the river's breakwater wall for longer than some state park employees have been alive. Last Tuesday, he says, he discovered a pleasant surprise.

"I've been fishing down here for 30 years, and last night, for the first time in 15 years, they had the lights on," Frank, 50, of Detroit says. "Those lights haven't worked for forever. I remember writing letters" to former Mayor "Coleman Young about the lights. I felt unsafe."

As Frank fishes unsuccessfully for walleye, the park teems with terns, Canada geese, sparrows and other birds that flit through the flowering trees.

In the harbor, bass loll below the water's surface, and a turtle pokes its head out to survey construction crews feverishly working on sod and concrete.

Languidly watching his fishing line hanging over the newly rebuilt breakwater, Frank can see the tip of Belle Isle to his left and the hazy outline of the Ambassador Bridge to his right. "This is a nice spot," he declares.

Tri-Centennial Park is the former city-owned St. Aubin Marina and Park. The city is leasing the land to the state, Jackson says.

The old docks and boat slips have been replaced, and the harbor has been dredged to a maximum depth of 10 feet to accommodate boats up to 75 feet long.

Walkways around the semicircular harbor are newly landscaped, and the riverfront fishing site has been refurbished.

"It's nice, it's neat, it's clean and the fishing is good also," said William Wilson of Detroit, who also fishes on the pier.

The city has also acquired the Lafarge Cement plant just west of the park, part of which will be included in park expansions.

"Those silos will be coming down," Jackson says of the cement plant's towering containers.

To the east of the park, negotiations to obtain the Cemex cement plant land have been unsuccessful -- leaving the possibility that its silos will remain in the middle of the RiverWalk, which might detour around the Cemex land.

Plans to expand the park call for a visitors center at the historic Globe Trading Co. building -- where Henry Ford got his training as a machinist and saw his first combustion engine, helping shape his life's work.

Nature trails, a bike path and demonstration areas of wetlands, hardwood forests, pine forests and meadows are envisioned for future phases of the park.

Contact HUGH McDIARMID JR. at 248-351-3295 or [email protected]

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