Detroit Plans for Fewer Condos, More Public Space on Waterfront

Preserving public access over private development. 

(Photo by Cybelle Codish)

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The east riverfront of Detroit’s future will belong to everyone, not just wealthy condo owners, city planners are saying.

“The vision reverses a long-held presumption that the riverfront running east from the Renaissance Center would fill up with pricey residences and shops to boost the city’s population and tax base,” according to the Detroit Free Press, which adds that a new plan, announced last week, “accepts that the value of public access to the riverfront outweighs the value of a few more condos and shops.”

Maurice Cox, director of the city of Detroit Planning and Development Department, unveiled a blueprint, alongside officials from the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, that would continue efforts to transform the waterfront into a public access point (many of which have already been realized, as Next City covered last year). But it also seeks to preserve for public access areas slated for development, namely a portion of the riverfront district between Atwater Street and the Detroit River. Three sites south of Atwater Street will become public park space, according to a release from the Conservancy.

“The east riverfront is a special place for all Detroiters, particularly families and the elderly,” Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, said, according to the release. “This plan builds on the lessons we have learned since opening up the RiverWalk in 2007. The greenway connections and expansions of the park space will significantly improve the riverfront experience for generations to come.”

The Free Press expressed some skepticism, noting that the new vision will depend on “all the usual variables of money and political will.” But it also notes that the city is “solidly behind it,” which should be a hopeful sign to supporters.

The city’s desire to reclaim its waterfront for residents isn’t exactly new, but it is a change of course from an administrative vision begun in the 1980s. In the 2000s, then Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced a series of real estate projects that would have “filled up the east riverfront with upscale private developments,” according to the Free Press. Many of those deals fell apart during the recession.

But efforts to democratize the waterfront, which echo similar projects in San Diego and Boston, have been quietly brewing since the ’90s, as Martina Guzmán wrote for Next City last year. After plans to build casinos on the waterfront fell through, she wrote “civic, corporate and philanthropic leaders came together to transform the riverfront into breathtaking public spaces built on concepts of public good and regional health.”

With Detroit’s history of racial segregation and white flight, planners wanted to make sure equity was part of the equation, so they began an intensive public participation process with over 150 community forums and meetings at churches and schools. The RiverWalk along the east riverfront opened in 2007.

Still, there were and continue to be challenges — one of the biggest being public transportation to the river for people who don’t have access to private vehicles. But according to one resident Guzman interviewed, if you go there now, you see a sample of people that looks very much like Detroit.

“Poor people used to go down and fish,” she said. “Now there are all kinds of people, all kinds of restaurants. The walkway is for everyone.”

Editor’s Note: This post has been corrected to reflect that the changes proposed under then Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick happened in the 2000s.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: urban planningdetroitpublic spacewaterfronts

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