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Detroit Riverfront Redevelopment hits Roadblocks


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DETROIT RIVERFRONT DEVELOPMENT: Disagreements over land, design bog down attempt to reclaim area for metro residents

October 8, 2003



First came the vision. Now come the details and disagreements.

Last December, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick helped unveil the most ambitious plan yet to reclaim the city's east riverfront as parkland and development.

Since then, design teams have struggled to put flesh on the bones of that vision. To nobody's surprise, disagreements have come up over key aspects, including how much land to devote to commercial development and how much to public recreational facilities.

The city also has run into delays in getting the final of three cement plants to move its operations off the riverfront. Negotiations with that firm, Cemex, have broken off. That raises the possibility that one set of cement silos several stories tall will remain in the middle of the city's planned 3-mile RiverWalk.

The broad vision remains unchanged. Overall, the plan would cost $500 million over many years and create the 3-mile RiverWalk from Hart Plaza to the Belle Isle bridge, a State of Michigan Tricentennial Park in the middle of the RiverWalk and a broad array of residential, commercial, and retail development between Jefferson Avenue, the RiverWalk and the park. The RiverWalk could be completed in one or two years.

But like the disputes in New York City over the site of the former World Trade Center, the disagreements in Detroit demonstrate how difficult it can be to move from a vision to bricks-and-mortar reality.

They also show how a final plan can emerge looking different from the concept that first garnered attention and applause.

At least one important player is less than happy with the probable outcome. The State of Michigan, which plans to open its first urban state park along the riverfront, is disappointed that the original 40 acres set aside for its Tricentennial Park in the center of the RiverWalk may be downsized to 25 acres because of financial constraints and conceptual design changes.

"That kind of a shift would change dramatically what we can do in terms of interpretative offerings," said Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for the state's Department of Natural Resources.

Other civic leaders are quick to assert that the differing views represent just the normal give-and-take inherent in any big public project.

"We have more than one opinion on how this will shake out, but the discussions have been very constructive," said George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and a key player in the process.

"We don't always agree, but there are no negatives in this. Everyone wants to see this work." Kent Anderson, a landscape architect who is working on the plan, agreed.

"It's part of the natural process of taking the vision plan and really assessing it and pulling at it and making sure it's really going to benefit the city, what works best for everybody. It's a pretty dynamic process," said Anderson, a partner at Detroit-based Hamilton Anderson Associates.

Carl Roehling, president of the SmithGroup, a Detroit-based architectural firm also working on the plan, said the level of cooperation has been good, given the number of constituencies.

"If you'd asked me, I would have thought it would have been tougher than it has been," he said.

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the organization formed last year to plan, build and manage the RiverWalk and related work, hopes to make public its completed plans by the end of this year.

Before those plans are done, several challenges must be resolved.

The final cement company

For decades, three cement companies have done business on the east riverfront. Moving them to another location, thus freeing up the riverfront for redevelopment, has been a long-term goal of the city.

Today, two of the three companies have signed agreements to move. But the third, Cemex, located at Atwater near the foot of St. Aubin, has not reached agreement over the cost to move it. Jackson said negotiations have broken off, and the city is pondering whether to resume talks, to try to seize the property through condemnation or to simply let the cement company stay where it is.

A spokesman for Cemex could not be reached for comment.

Even if the city tried condemnation proceedings, the process could drag on for years. Leaving the company where it is would mean having cement silos right in the heart of the RiverWalk.

The size of the state park

When unveiled last December, the centerpiece of the RiverWalk was a 40-acre State of Michigan park to be called Tricentennial Park, after Detroit's three centuries of life.

Since then, the size of the proposed park has shrunk to as little as 25 acres, a decrease of almost 40 percent, because of competing demands for the same space.

Wurfel said the loss of 15 acres would dramatically decrease what the park could exhibit in its interpretative offerings.

That loss would be magnified because some of the remaining 25 acres would be taken up by a marina planned on the site of the city's now-closed St. Aubin Marina.

"We were very pleased with the vision that was unveiled last December," Wurfel said. "We recognize that with myriad interests involved, concessions are going to be made on certain things."

The route of the RiverWalk

Designed to follow the shoreline, the 3-mile RiverWalk now appears likely to bend inland at several points to go around obstacles. These are mostly marinas, which need to retain an outlet for private facilities and boaters, including a U.S. Coast Guard station.

Jackson said planners are weighing whether to build drawbridges or other devices on the shoreline at those points rather than going around them. But the current thinking, both for financial and aesthetic reasons, is to bend the RiverWalk around them.

Planners said the RiverWalk will always retain a view of the water, even along the stretches where it bends inland.

The design of the 'beacons'

Initial plans call for a series of "beacons" -- architectural elements rising 100 to 200 feet in height -- at several points along the RiverWalk. They would mark the point at which major streets intersect with the shoreline.

Still unresolved is whether these elements should be light towers, or shaped like sails, or perhaps serve as navigational markers for boaters.

There is even talk of partnering with the City of Windsor for a series of beacons marching down each side of the river as monumental landmarks.

Like the state park and the RiverWalk route, the beacons' design could remain a work in progress even after the park's initial infrastructure takes shape during the next year or two.

"We're not going to have every element in place on day one -- every fountain, every beacon. But we'll have the fundamental infrastructure in place, and as people's needs change, the park will be able to adapt," Roehling said.

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER at 313-222-5173 or [email protected].

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