Take Me to the River

If you've ever been so fortunate as to walk along a Venetian canal or the River Seine or paused atop a bridge over the Vltava in Prague, then you know the role a city's relationship with its water can play in enhancing a person's urban experience. And you will also know, when you have strolled along the recently-completed portions of our very own RiverWalk, that Detroit has finally, after three centuries of existence, consummated that relationship.

Now 75 percent of  the 3.5-mile length of the East RiverWalk is  complete – open and accessible. From Joe Louis Arena to Rivard and again from Jos. Campau to Mt. Elliott, it's all landscaped and lovely.

After experiencing multiple runs, walks and bike rides over the first two weeks the new stretches of RiverWalk have been open, it's clear that the western portion, stretching from Joe Louis to Rivard, is already extremely popular. (Of course, much of it has been open for some time.) There are tons of people strolling, reading, fishing, biking, boarding the Detroit Princess and Diamond Jack boats, splashing in fountains, even sleeping. It's a full-on melting pot of ages and races, too, which makes for great people-watching.

People tend to cluster in nodes: fishers at the westernmost corner, at the Underground Railroad sculpture that was unveiled for Detroit 300, in front of the General Motors Renaissance Center and now, in the just-opened Rivard Plaza.

Rivard Plaza is the largest of four planned plaza nodes along the East Riverfront RiverWalk. It features a magical Great Lakes-themed carousel (already a hit!), a water jet fountain and pool, a sculpture dedicated to major donors as well as donor bricks, a map of the Detroit River system made of granite and a vertical glass map of the entire St. Lawrence Seaway, stretching from Lake St. Clair to the Atlantic Ocean. It's great to observe people studying the maps, getting a sense of Detroit's place in a much-larger network of waterways.

The Chene Park tensile structure holds concessions and restroom facilities, a rental area where bikes and roller blades might be procured. There are also water fountains, lots and lots of bike racks and a parking lot.

To get to the rest of the completed portion of the RiverWalk, you have to take Atwater Street east to Jos. Campau. When you hit Stroh River Place, make a right, and you hook back into the RiverWalk. All the way from Jos. Campau to Mt. Elliott Park, more than a half-mile more of river frontage is open for business. This takes walkers and bikers in front of Stroh River Place, Omni Hotel, UAW-GM and Harbortown.

Eye-popping views

This part of the RiverWalk has been less busy, likely because it is not as visible and people might not know it's open yet. You can park at Mt. Elliott Park or just walk or bike down Atwater. But check it out. It's beautifully done and provides fresh eye-popping views of Windsor and Belle Isle.

Also, you can drop into the Omni Hotel and hang out at Fender's Tavern. If there's not a wedding or special event, you can even have a cocktail on the patio that abuts the RiverWalk. How awesome is that?

Once Mt. Elliott Park is reached, the development of the RiverWalk is cut off – for now – by the Uniroyal Site. This park is another cool spot that will hopefully start to see more use. Another plaza is eventually planned for this location.

Gabriel Richard Park, just east of the Belle Isle Bridge in the Villages neighborhood has also been improved and the third pavilion constructed. This plaza is more serene than the one at Rivard; there are butterfly gardens, a meditative labyrinth, fishing platforms and notably, a soft shoreline.

Like Rivard Plaza, Gabriel Richard offers shaded outdoor seating and wireless internet access.

Connecting people to place

A third plaza will go up at Mt. Elliott Park and the fourth, in the vicinity of Chene Park. The asphalt portion of the RiverWalk just east of Hart Plaza will be improved when the Port Authority builds its terminal and dock facility there.

The section east of Rivard is slated for an expansion of Tricentennial State Park, which the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy's chief operating officer Leonard Marszalek says will begin to be bid out for construction this summer. He expects this portion to be complete by fall of 2008.

There's a sliver of land just west of Jos. Campau that is Coast Guard property. The city is working to obtain the property and will then transfer it to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. Marszalek says this 500-ft stretch is likely a full year away from completion.

Then there's the dirty dirty Uniroyal site – over a half-mile of the final distance tally. Plans for clean-up have been approved, and the Bettis-Betters development team are working with the parties responsible for the contamination. Marszalek says this portion is still two years out.

The Dequindre Cut, which will stretch north of Tricentennial Park to connect the river to Eastern Market, is in final review at the state level and construction should get underway this summer.

Work also continues on the West Riverfront, which will take the RiverWalk west to the Ambassador Bridge for a final total of six miles of riverfront. Currently pursuing land control, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy will soon embark on a district master plan.

Security and maintenance of all this public space, in perpetuity, will be taken on by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. There will be multiple security levels: ambassadors will be friendly faces that will act as eyes and ears, security guards on bikes will patrol daylight hours and foot patrols will take place 16 hours a day. Security cameras and call boxes will be manned 24 hours from the Rivard Plaza command center. The security crew also has a golf cart vehicle for its role as first responder to any situation at the same time that either the police or fire department is notified.

Building excitement

A giant free party, Detroit International River Days, will formally introduce the RiverWalk to the public. The event runs June 22-27.

Local and national musical acts will perform throughout the festival on the EDS stage located on Atwater and the Sprint Stage in front of the Renaissance Center. Highlights include the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Angie Stone, Joan Jett and The Ohio Players. A stage will also be at Gabriel Richard Park during the day on Saturday and Sunday.

On June 23 at 10 p.m., check out the DTE Energy Parade of Lights, with boats cruising the river en masse. Detroit Bikes! will be hosting an evening bike tour of the RiverWalk and surrounding areas, culminating in a bike-front viewing of the boat parade.
Pooch-a-Palooza happens the morning of June 24. Dogs will participate in pet walk with their owners and then receive "Peticures" and free pet photos from Canine to Five.

The festival culminates Wednesday, June 27 with the 49th Annual Target Fireworks.

There are many other things to do, like checking out a fishing tournament, exploring the old Bob-Lo boat, the Ste. Claire, docked at Tricenntennial Park, and sampling food from local restaurants.

Marszalek wants nothing more than to lure every resident of Metro Detroit down to the water's edge – he knows that once they make it down there, it won't be the last time. "RiverDays is a way to build excitement, to build awareness," he says. "Many people still don't know what we've done."

Kelli Kavanaugh is Development News and Innovation & Job News Editor for Model D and metromode.


The Carousel at Rivard Plaza

Rivard Plaza with the Carousel

Rivard Sign

Rivard Plaza Canopy

Map of Southeast Michigan and Western Ontario on the Plaza Walkway

Riverwalk at the Renaissance Center

A Fountain on the Riverwalk

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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