Rolling on the Riverwalk

Jun 17, 2009 at 12:00 am

It's an ambitious project, transforming downtown Detroit's gritty, industrial riverfront into, well, something nice.

But that is, indeed, happening along the Riverwalk that eventually will run the five miles from Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle, providing a paved, safe, lit, marked route for walking, biking, skating, lunching, boat watching and fishing. It's also a prime location for concerts and the annual River Days festival this weekend, providing a link to the newly opened Dequindre Cut Greenway that runs nearly to Eastern Market. 

With striking views of the river and easy access from downtown offices or streets, the Riverwalk is downtown's newest outdoor playground and refuge.

Right now, the Riverwalk is about 75 percent complete, running from Joe Louis Arena (more or less) to Mount Elliot Park. Most of it is marked and dedicated pavement, wide enough for cyclists to safely pass pedestrians and anglers. Park benches, railings and fountains make appearances along the route. The views of the river, the cityscape, the Canadian shore and Belle Isle are stunning.

But there's one less-than-stellar part of the walk: the stretch that runs along the gravelly sidewalk on Atwater Street about a block from the water.

That will change by the end of the summer, when the second phase of Tri-Centennial Park is finished and the Riverwalk will continue along the water's edge, according to Kristen Bennett, a park planner with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The park covers 31 acres of state-owned land between Rivard Plaza and Chene Park. But it's been opening in stages. Phase One was the marina with its transient slips for boaters and walkway out to the 63-foot lighthouse on the property's eastern edge. It's been a state park for four years.

Phase Two is the property's western section, which was formerly a cement yard. It's now fenced-off as its year-long construction is nearing completion. 

"We wanted it to look similar to the rest of the Riverwalk, but we wanted you to definitely feel when you came into the park that you were in a different space, a different park, different than the plaza and the harbor," Bennett says.

In this section, the DNR built a pond that will collect surface runoff water from the Riverwalk, the park and from any development that comes in adjacent to the park. Native plants are taking root, protected from Canadian geese by a special "goose fence," and will eventually filter the water as it travels from the east end of the pond to the western edge and into the Detroit River.

"Right now, storm water, which is relatively clean, is dumped in with your sewage water, which is really nasty, and goes right to a sewage treatment plant. This water is relatively clean, the plants will finish the process and when it goes into the river, it's probably a lot cleaner than the chemically treated water that goes into the river now," Bennett says.

The park's Phase Three, which will be bid later this year, includes the hill between the first two sections. The overall Tri-Centennial Park project's $6 million budget has been funded by grants from a variety of organizations and about $300,000 of DNR money.

In the current era of uncertainty in the auto industry, the Riverwalk is promising a bright future for human-powered movement.