The Detroit Riverfront: A Hidden Gem of the City Brought to Life

The Detroit riverfront is truly one of the jewels of Detroit. With panoramic views of the city’s skyline, Detroit River and Canada, it provides a breathtaking perspective on the beauty of the city, its riverfront and a neighboring country–Canada.

Over the last several years, the Riverfront has gone through a major transformation beginning with the launch of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy in 2003, There were three key partners instrumental in establishing the Conversancy. They were:

1. The City of Detroit: which provided valuable riverfront land and significant infrastructure improvements and took the lead on relocating the riverfront cement factories;

2. General Motors: which built the Wintergarden which opened the RenCen to the river and then made a $25 million investment in the GM Plaza and the first half mile of RiverWalk. Ultimately, this was donated to the Conservancy; and

3. The Kresge Foundation: provided its largest grant ever to a single project – a $50 million challenge grant that served as the economic catalyst to launch the Conservancy’s efforts and to attract additional major funding from the foundation community, corporate, the public sector and the community-at-large.

Mark Wallace, President & CEO, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, grew up in Chelsea and has spent approximately ten years working in real estate with a primary emphasis on riverfronts. In addition to Detroit, Wallace has worked on riverfront projects in both Chicago and Toronto. He recently gave me a tour of the riverfront’s transformation efforts and, as part of it, we discussed investment and entrepreneurial opportunities for those wanting to help make the riverfront a world-class destination.
Lee: What’s the mission of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy (DRC)?

Wallace: The mission of the Conservancy is to develop public access to Detroit’s riverfront and to have this development serve as an anchor for economic revitalization – all while working with others to create more thriving, walkable and connected communities within Detroit. The Conservancy is a non-profit and is responsible for all programming, landscaping, security, and maintenance of the riverwalk and our three plazas.

Lee: What is your longer-term vision for DRFC and the riverfront?

Wallace: I would love to see the RiverWalk extend from Southwest Detroit to the Belle Isle Bridge, with strong connections – like the Dequindre Cut – that provide direct access from the neighborhoods to the river. The Detroit River is one of the most beautiful waterways in the country, and our residents should have direct access to it. I would also like to see the riverfront district transformed from vacant property into exciting neighborhoods. Much of the recent changes in Detroit have come through historic renovation projects. The riverfront is a place where Detroit could develop a unique architectural character through new construction.

Lee: What makes the Detroit riverfront truly unique and why should residents and visitors stop by for a visit?

Wallace: Every great city has a place that welcomes people from all walks of life. That’s what makes urban places special – you run into people who are different from you, and those interactions are really exciting and special. The Detroit RiverWalk was designed to be a great place for people. Many people know the area from the RenCen to Rivard Plaza. I’d encourage people to check out Mt. Elliott Park, which has amazing water features, and Mt. Elliott Park that has beautiful butterfly gardens and a splash pad for kids. The Dequindre Cut has also become a beloved place in the city, and it’s really fun to rent a bike at Wheelhouse Detroit and spend a few hours exploring the riverfront.

The completed portions of the riverfront, along with its sister rails-to-trails greenway, the Dequindre Cut, are visited each year by about three million people. It’s a great place to walk, ride a bike, take a run, or bring kids.

Lee: Additionally, what are a couple of little known fun facts about the Detroit River?

Wallace: Early Detroit settlers were awarded farm grants along the river. These long, thin plots of land were known as ribbon farms. They are marked today by streets which bear the names of these early settlers: Beaubien, Riopelle, Chene, St. Aubin, Livernois and Campau.

Additionally, the Detroit River:

  • Was once so busy that it was declared a public highway by an Act of Congress in 1819,
  • Was the last stop of the Underground Railroad before people reached Canada, and
  • In Detroit, Canada is actually “south” of the US.
  • When Antoine Cadillac landed at Detroit in the 1700’s, his priest wrote in his journal that the bears they found in Detroit were friendlier than the bears they had encountered in other places.

Lee: As part of the tour, you pointed out parks and investment currently taking place. Please highlight for those who may not know what’s taking place.

The work of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy has significantly increased the visibility and value of the Riverfront district. Two projects are currently underway – Richard Baron is building 275 residential units in Orleans Landing, and Harbortown is adding a 175-unit apartment building. We are also really excited about the opening of the Outdoor Adventure Center, which is an incredible place that will draw thousands of kids and families from all over the state.

Lee: How much of the riverfront is managed by DRFC?

The Conservancy manages the entire riverwalk from Joe Louis Arena to Gabriel Richard Park. Our ultimate vision is to provide a contiguous 5.5 mile riverwalk from the Ambassador Bridge to the Belle Isle Bridge. To date, we have opened 3.5 miles of the East Riverwalk. Last year, we opened the 20-acre West Riverfront Park, which our Corktown and Southwest residents are quickly embracing. We also manage the Dequindre Cut, which will be extended to Mack Avenue this year.

Lee: Regarding economic development, please quantify the financial impact DRC’s having on Detroit?

An economic impact survey commissioned by the Conservancy in 2013 found that $1 billion in public and private investment has incurred along the riverfront in the last decade. More than $1 billion in investment is predicted during the next decade. More information can be found in the economic impact study.

Lee: Regarding jobs, how many jobs are directly and indirectly a result of the work on the riverfront?

Wallace: According to the economic impact study the Conservancy commissioned in 2013, riverfront improvements have supported 16,700 construction jobs and provide on-going annual support for 1,300 jobs.

Lee: Are there opportunities for entrepreneurs to become engaged with the Conversancy?

Wallace: People with an entrepreneurial spirit should take a look at some of the historic properties in the riverfront district. This will be the next great neighborhood to emerge in Detroit.

Lee: Finally, are most of the events free and how do people find out more information regarding activities.

Wallace: Almost all of the activities on the RiverWalk are completely free. We offer weekly Yoga and T’ai Chi classes, Walk the RiverWalk Wednesdays, Kids Fishing Fest, volleyball league night, herbal walk and talks, rain barrel workshops and the Reading & Rhythm on the Riverfront literacy program. We also have a senior walking club and the Riverfront Canine Club, which hosts Pack Walks. Our signature summer event is the GM River Days festival, which was attended by more than 165,000 people this year.

A calendar of events can be found at