Lapointe: Despite a recent shooting nearby, Detroit’s Riverwalk is a bustling success

Soon, you can walk, run, or bike from downtown to Belle Isle

May 8, 2023 at 8:49 am
click to enlarge The Riverwalk has become what is generally a peaceful respite in the heart of a sometimes violent city. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
The Riverwalk has become what is generally a peaceful respite in the heart of a sometimes violent city.

At first, the bulletin delivered a jolt: Two persons shot and wounded on the Riverwalk in downtown Detroit. Not a good way to start the season on the Motor City’s premier pedestrian promenade.

Turns out, the shooting was only near the river, on Atwater and Rivard, on April 16. A 16-year-old male fired a gun at a passing car shortly after midnight and accidentally hit two bystanders, according to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

The victims suffered minor injuries; the juvenile shooter was apprehended.

“The Detroit Riverwalk is one of Detroit’s true jewels,” Worthy said in a statement. “While every single shooting is tragic, this Riverwalk case is particularly disturbing.”

It occurred too close for comfort, a few yards from Cullen Plaza — a main entry point of the Riverwalk, a projected 5.5-mile, paved waterfront path for walkers, runners, and bicycle riders that eventually will connect Belle Isle’s MacArthur Bridge and the Ambassador Bridge.

Let’s hope this shooting portends nothing sinister for one of Detroit’s most enlightened projects of the 21st Century. During this trigger-happy period in American culture, the Riverwalk has become what is generally a peaceful respite in the heart of a sometimes violent city.

Gradually growing and improving since its debut in 2003, the pathway will expand by two more stretches in the near future.

The first will come this autumn on the East Side with the opening of a nearly half-mile strip that will connect Mt. Elliott Park with Gabriel Richard Park and provide a pathway to Belle Isle. This extension will cross the old Uniroyal tire factory site.

click to enlarge Looking east from Mt. Elliott Park toward Belle Isle’s MacArthur Bridge. Behind the fence is a promenade on the former Uniroyal site that will connect downtown to Belle. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
Looking east from Mt. Elliott Park toward Belle Isle’s MacArthur Bridge. Behind the fence is a promenade on the former Uniroyal site that will connect downtown to Belle.

On the other stretch, on the West Side, the year 2024 will see the planned opening of Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, plus a boardwalk in front of the now-standing Riverfront Towers, plus another parcel of the Riverwalk just west of those apartments.

In the middle of all this stands one of the sparkling, new symbols of progress: “The Residences at Water Square,” a glass-sided apartment building. Its 25 stories are rising quickly on the site of the demolished Joe Louis Arena, just west of the Huntington Place convention center.

With 496 apartments, it will open next February. In a recent event at the site, Mayor Michael Duggan bragged of riverfront improvements over the last four decades.

“In 1983, our riverfront was a collection of cement silos and asphalt parking lots,” Duggan said. “While, today, we have what is widely recognized as the nation’s most beautiful public Riverwalk.”

His timeline is a bit of a stretch. The Renaissance Center was already there by 1983 and so were Cobo Hall and Cobo Arena, as they were first known, as well as the Joe, which opened in 1979. But there were plenty of ghost blocks, too, and toxic wastelands like the Uniroyal parcel, idle since 1979.

click to enlarge The Residences at Water Square is a glass-sided apartment building rising quickly on the site of the demolished Joe Louis Arena. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
The Residences at Water Square is a glass-sided apartment building rising quickly on the site of the demolished Joe Louis Arena.

And Hizzoner should know that the very site of old JLA and these new apartments has great history, too. Once — long ago — it was a dark, private, quiet, gravel parking lot where high school kids would park their cars to watch the submarine races after the senior prom at the Top of the Pontch or the Top of the Flame.

And further full disclosure: Some of us grew up alongside this very river. We listened through open bedroom windows on summer nights to the fog horns of the freighters. On soft summer days, gazing toward Canada, we watched them cruise by from the shores of Fairview Park and Lakewood Park.

Some rode bicycles to Belle Isle and others rode the Jefferson-Alter Road bus through the distinctive odor of what was then called the “U.S. Rubber Co.” We remain emotionally if not financially invested in the riverfront and optimistic about progress alongside it.

Much is already there to see in juxtaposed images. Near abandoned factories and empty lots just East of the RenCen, spiffy blocks of condominiums sprout along the route like the flowers of spring. Speaking of flowers, there are plenty in bloom now, in tended beds, in Cullen Plaza.

click to enlarge Flowers are already blooming along the Riverwalk. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
Flowers are already blooming along the Riverwalk.

A different form of real estate lies nearby in Milliken State Park. Just east of its man-made wetlands is a large, man-made hill, its soil excavated to create the aforementioned wetlands.

Last year, the visionaries at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had the good sense to sculpt the hill for human recreation. So they built a bike ramp and several concrete staircases to the top. (The longest is 33 steps, in three flights.)

Once you get up there, a platform offers a spectacular view of downtown to the west, Windsor to the south, Belle Isle to the east, and, of course, the river and the Ambassador Bridge.

Below you are the people fishing on shore or drifting by on boats. You can almost feel your blood pressure dropping. When it snows in winter, the hill is used for sledding.

click to enlarge A man-made hill offers a spectacular view. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
A man-made hill offers a spectacular view.

If weary from your climb, grab one of the lounge chairs, in the sun or the shade. Plenty are lined up along the water, free to use. In the summer, you might hear the happy sounds of kids spinning on the carousel and splashing in the splash pad.

Despite its many delights, a few things could use improvement on the Riverwalk. One of them is the bicycle problem. The shared path is so narrow in some places that the safety of runners and walkers can be a concern.

That’s because some Riverwalk bicyclists ignore the customary etiquette to signal their presence by bell or by voice when approaching pedestrians from behind. Other bike riders seem to think they’ve signaled enough by blasting loud music from a boombox.

Those noisemakers are technically forbidden on the Riverwalk, although that rule is often abused.

click to enlarge The Dequindre Cut is a former railroad-turned-pedestrian path adorned with colorful artwork. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
The Dequindre Cut is a former railroad-turned-pedestrian path adorned with colorful artwork.

A problem easier to solve is the lack of signs leading from the Riverwalk to the Dequindre Cut. The ‘Cut is the former railroad path that extends two miles north from the Riverwalk. It is beautifully landscaped, carefully groomed and colorfully decorated with approved graffiti-style art, some of it exquisite.

But just try to find it from the Riverwalk.

There are no signs for it until you get three streets north of the Riverwalk, past one of those sprouting residential clusters. Not even street signs. Not even at Atwater.

Adding a couple arrows to steer people from the ‘Walk to the ‘Cut might serve both bikers and pedestrians because separate lanes are lined there. They are wide and divided and safer for all concerned.

These are minor quibbles. Overall, the Riverwalk offers safe, clean, free, friendly surroundings that promote healthy habits, relaxation in stressful times, and new investment. Let’s hope it stays that way and keeps getting better, step by thoughtful step.

click to enlarge A serene sight on Detroit’s Riverwalk. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
A serene sight on Detroit’s Riverwalk.

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