Detroit's riverfront leads the way in changing Michiganders’ connection with urban recreation

This piece is part of "Preserving Michigan", an ongoing series about conservation and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. Read the full series here.

Linda Walter vividly remembers her college professor Charles Lewis at Wayne State University driving her parks and recreation class down to the Detroit riverfront in 1982. He would gesture to the blighted area, predicting that one day it would be a chain of beautiful parks.


“We rolled our eyes,” Walter admits. “You couldn’t even see the water.”


Now, Walter is the director of the Michigan DNR Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC), located on the riverfront, and feels honored to be a part of her former professor's vision.


“When the job came up I thought, ‘professor Lewis, I am going to do you proud’.”


Walter joined the team at the OAC in 2014, when the center was still just the dilapidated Globe Building on Fort Street. The 19th-century building had experienced many previous lives as the Detroit Dry Dock Engine Works, a stove manufacturing complex, as an appliance repair site for the Detroit Edison Company, and finally as a machinery wholesale firm. The building had fallen into tax foreclosure and was now owned by the city. Despite a proud history, it was in bad shape.

Dilapidated Globe Building on Fort Street, 2015


“There were no walls in the building,” Walter remembers when she first entered the building that would be her future workplace. “There was snow on the floor.”


When the City of Detroit was looking to sell the building the previous year, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had been looking to engage more with urban areas and were scouting for a site to bring the OAC concept to life.


“The building was pretty derelict in its condition,” says Ron Olson, Michigan’s chief of Parks and Recreation, “but the bones and the structure were still sound.”


Olsen says the DNR debated working with several nonprofit organizations and even discussed partnering with Detroit Public Schools, but the district was not in a position to do anything at that time. That’s when the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) stepped up with a $9 million grant to acquire the land, sharing the vision of connecting urban residents with the state’s recreational opportunities.


But there was a problem. Dollars from the Fund were meant for the acquisition of land, not for development, and could not be used to buy land from another public entity (like the city).


“We had to get creative,” says Olsen. “So we partnered with a private developer (The Roxbury Group) who bought the land for $1, and in exchange they renovated the building, keeping the historical elements of the building intact.”


The facility was then purchased using an MNRTF grant, and after leveraging $8 million in other funds to develop exhibits, the OAC opened in 2015.


Now celebrating its fifth year, the OAC has proven a popular asset to the riverfront, drawing approximately 100,000 visitors annually and, before the COVID-19 shutdown, was on track for its biggest year yet.

Michigan DNR Outdoor Adventure Center


The OAC is designed to give urban residents a taste of Michigan’s outdoor spaces without them having to travel north. Hands-on activities, exhibits, and simulators are school group favorites, providing the chance to walk behind a waterfall, step into a fishing boat and reel in a (virtual) catch, explore a real airplane, and climb aboard a snowmobile.


“There’s a lot of kids in the city of Detroit who don’t get the chance to go ‘up north’,” says William Smith, CFO of Detroit RiverFront Conservancy (DRFC). “They get to experience these things at the OAC. It’s been a tremendous asset to the riverfront.”


The site’s dramatic renovation is just one example of the riverfront’s overall transformation in recent years, and the partnerships required to make it happen. Three million people frequent the riverfront each year, according to the DRFC. The nonprofit group is continuing to work to bring the vision of a RiverWalk with plazas, pavilions, and green spaces.


“We take pride in the riverfront,” says Smith. “It’s the front door to Detroit.”


It takes a village


Each project along the riverfront has taken a small village of partnerships top to bring about, but the MNRTF has been the foundation for each effort. The MNRTF has invested more than $58 million in riverfront projects, including improvements to Belle Isle, and works with local units of government to supply funding assistance for projects.


MNRTF Recreation Grants Manager Jon Mayes says the DRFC, Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, Department of Transportation, and other collaborative partners leverage further private funding to boost the park and greenway developments.

Milliken State Park. Photo by Doug Coombe


But the projects are not just about changing the aesthetics of the area. They signify a cultural shift in attitudes towards the city as well.


Olsen joined the DNR is 2005 and says at that time it was clear that the department, and Michigan’s natural assets in general, weren’t well represented in urban Detroit.


“What we did was try to change the focus,” he says. “We wanted to create relevancy where the intense areas of the population are. We also wanted to engage with a more diverse population, with all segments of our society.”


A changing image


Walters has witnessed how the OAC has contributed to this focus shift, but also how this has led to attitudes changing towards the riverfront in wider metro Detroit.


“When we first opened we would get daily calls from people wanting to visit the OAC, asking if it was safe to park here,” recalls Walters. “After 18 months, people stopped asking.”


The project had a significant impact on its surroundings. The Orleans Landing apartment project on the east Detroit riverfront was approved and ready to go while the OAC was under construction, but waited until the center was open to “put a shovel in the ground”, says Walter.


“We worked really closely with the Orleans Landing team,” says Walter. “They had a lot of meetings here and they wanted to wait until we were well underway.”

Milliken State Park. Photo by Doug Coombe


Between the improvements to William G. Milliken State Park and the OAC development, the area was starting to turn heads, says Vicki McGhee, planning and infrastructure section chief for the state of Michigan.


“When we began to secure funding for the OAC, a lot of other developments were watching us, and you really began to see an investment in the East riverfront at that time.”


Walter describes the OAC as a middle piece in the riverfront puzzle and as an outdoor recreational facility uniquely designed indoors, in the state’s most densely populated county, she believes it is a truly visionary project.

Milliken State Park. Photo by Doug Coombe


“We have been visited by folks from all over the country and asking how we have done it,” says Walter. “Minnesota is interested in doing something similar and we had someone in from San Diego recently too.”


But it’s the change in transportation culture that really highlights the impact of the riverfront for Walter. Looking out her office window when they first opened, she says she would see the occasional walker or rider pass by.


“Now, it’s nonstop pedestrian traffic,” she says. “People used to ask ‘who is going to ride bikes in Detroit?’ and now we ask ‘who isn’t riding bikes in Detroit?’”


Smith says the riverfront unites a broad cross-section of the community. “It’s a gathering space for all,” he says. “When you go, you’re going to see every economic class, every nationality, every demographic.”


A place outdoors for kids


Events like the Kids Fishing Fest in the reinvigorated Milliken State Park are aimed at promoting access to recreation. Twice a year, on days when fishing licenses aren’t required, the DNR and Michigan State Police gather to host a fishing event where participants can borrow poles and tackle to try their hand at the sport.


It’s a way for City of Detroit kids to have a positive interaction with the police department,” says Smith. “It’s a great, fun event for kids who might not have had [a fishing experience].”


Bringing a recreation focus to urban areas was, for Olsen and his team, not just about providing fun, but a way of opening up professional opportunities. Olsen says there was a specific focus on bringing recreation projects to Detroit, Saginaw, and Flint, to address inequality in career options.


“We worked with youth group providers to engage with young people, to engage with natural resource work and careers,” he says.


The revitalization continues


Next, investors in the riverfront are looking west.


Our biggest project right now is the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park development,” says Smith.


Construction will begin on the $60 million renovation of the 22-acre park on West Jefferson Avenue after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. The improvements follow an extensive design process that began in 2017, when a community advisory team made up of 21 Detroit residents from a variety of city neighborhoods, professions, and cultural backgrounds, traveled around the country to gather concepts for the park.

Milliken State Park. Photo by Doug Coombe

Four design teams presented their work as part of a Detroit-based public exhibition in 2018 with a New York-based landscape architect firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, selected as the finalist.


“We all remember just over a decade ago when our riverfront was lined with parking lots and cement silos,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a press release.


“As Detroit's revitalization continues, one of our guiding principles has been that the riverfront is for everyone, and this design delivers on that promise.”


For Walter and the team at the OAC it feels like history has come full circle for the area but in a very different way.


“We were at the height of industry in the early 1900s and now we are the height of recreation in the city,” says Walter.


“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. Read the full series here.

The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.