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River of return

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Published 9/29/2004

First there was the river. It was from this strait that the city obtained its sustenance, its commerce, its very name. Colonial strategists saw a doorway to the West. With the coming of the Erie Canal, Eastern merchants saw an ideal site for an inland port, open to navigation even when the straits of Mackinac froze over and closed off access to Chicago. As the Midwest matured into an industrial powerhouse, the river became one of the busiest shipping channels in the United States, bringing the raw materials necessary to feed a mushrooming city.

Like many American cities, Detroit watched as its river became host to a gritty, working waterfront, clogged with industry, laced with railroad and stuck with smokestacks and wharves.

It was only after World War II that civic leaders tried to harness the river’s potential as a natural wonder. Starting in the 1950s, plans took shape for transforming the low-rise and plug-ugly waterfront into a pleasure center.

This transformation of the waterfront has had an uneven history. Its hit-and-miss record has left small parks sandwiched between industrial properties. Much of the riverfront has long been home to weedy swaths of real estate and empty industrial buildings. What’s more, major projects have been poorly conceived, such as the ludicrously isolated and solidly fortified Renaissance Center, or even dismal failures, such as the long-shuttered Ford Auditorium.

But things are looking up for the troubled shoreline. A new group has its sights on the natural beauty. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has embarked upon an ambitious mission to cobble together the riverfront parks with the remains of the city’s working riverfront and turn the shore into a recreational paradise. The plan calls for a riverwalk, a continuous public walkway from Joe Louis Arena to the MacArthur Bridge, a path more than 50 feet wide stretching for 3 1/2 miles, designed to accommodate bicyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians.

In addition to this promenade, the state of Michigan is to construct the 31-acre Tricentennial Park, Michigan’s first urban state park. And General Motors, in addition to undoing the original design errors that flawed the Renaissance Center, is creating a riverfront promenade in its back yard, stretching out onto the river. A 63-foot-tall lighthouse has been erected at the entrance to the new St. Aubin Marina, and a new port facility is being built near Bates Street to welcome cruise and dining ships.

The plan builds on progress made at three riverfront parks (Mt. Elliott, Chene and St. Aubin) and redeveloped areas such as Stroh River Place, Harbortown, and UAW-GM’s human resources center. This flurry of activity has awakened new interest in developing the private lots held adjacent to the parks. Already there is talk of building housing on the former Uniroyal plant site adjacent to the MacArthur Bridge. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy will be coordinating its activities with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation in hopes of attracting developers.

The plan is working out well so far, with construction crews hard at work and money from companies, governments and foundations flowing into the project. There are discussions of extending the project west to the Ambassador Bridge, which would give the city a whopping 5-mile-long greenbelt from bridge to bridge.

Michael Jackman is a copy editor and writer for Metro Times. E-mail mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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