Detroit Riverfront Conservancy gears up to give West Riverfront Park a big makeover and a new name

This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.

The sun seems to be shining brightly on Detroit's West Riverfront Park right now. In March, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, which owns the 22-acre park, was awarded a new $500,000 grant by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to support a new garden and other improvements there. And the conservancy is now preparing to kick off a massive redevelopment that will bestow a new name, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park, on the recreation area later this year.

Located roughly between Rosa Parks Boulevard and 8th Street along the Detroit River, West Riverfront Park currently serves as the western edge of Detroit's RiverWalk. The site was purchased by the conservancy in 2014 and has since been used to host concerts and other events, like the River Days festival. 

"For decades the property housed a Free Press printing facility, so the only people who had access to this property, with its great views of the Detroit skyline, Canada, and the Ambassador Bridge, were those lucky enough to work in that building,"Youth play at West Riverfront Park (DRC) says Marc Pasco, the conservancy's communication director. "It's a great park now, that people love, but in the fall we're going to break ground and transform it into Wilson Park."

Plans to renovate the park date back to 2018. That year, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation awarded the conservancy a $40 million dollar grant to upgrade the recreation area and rename it in honor of the 100th birthday of the charity's namesake. Another $10 million was also granted to the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan at the same time to pay for the park's upkeep.

Wilson, an insurance magnate and former NFL team owner who lived in Grosse Pointe Shores, passed away in 2014. His foundation has also donated money to establish a similar park in Buffalo, New York, where his former team, the Buffalo Bills, is based.  

The redesign of the park was guided by a community advisory team made up of 21 Detroiters. They visited a variety of parks in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City, and shared their thoughts with the conservancy about the elements they would most like to see at Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park. The redevelopment plans can be broken down into four main components: a sports house that will have facilities for basketball and other indoor activities; a grassy pavilion for performances and events; a water area with a winding pond connected to the Detroit River; and a five-acre playground sponsored by Delta Dental that will feature animal-themed play structures for children to climb on and enjoy. 

These features will be supplemented by the new $500,000 grant, which was given in honor of Wilson's late daughters, Edith "Dee Dee" Wilson and Linda Bogdan. The funds for the new grant come from the two women's trusts and will be used to create a colorful garden at the park and further enhance the site. The Wilson Foundation has also recommended that an additional $150,000 be taken annually from the trusts of Wilson's daughters to help with plantings and site maintenance. 

Renovations are slated to begin this fall and should be completed in 2023. 

Last November, the conservancy announced an alliance with the Huron-Clinton Metropark Authority (HCMA). The partnership will involve the HCMA establishing a physical presence in Detroit and joint outreach and programming connected to Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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