Ground broken on final stretch of eastern Detroit Riverwalk

By: Brendan Losinski | Metro | Published May 20, 2021

 Construction will be finished in 2022 to complete the eastern half of the Detroit Riverwalk, stretching from Joe Louis Arena to Gabriel Richard Plaza.

Construction will be finished in 2022 to complete the eastern half of the Detroit Riverwalk, stretching from Joe Louis Arena to Gabriel Richard Plaza.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 A groundbreaking took place May 12 on the former site of the Uniroyal tire plant in Detroit. The location will now be home to the final portion of the eastern Detroit Riverwalk.

A groundbreaking took place May 12 on the former site of the Uniroyal tire plant in Detroit. The location will now be home to the final portion of the eastern Detroit Riverwalk.

Photo by Deb Jacques

DETROIT — Ground was broken May 12 on the final stretch of the eastern Detroit Riverwalk, a walkable public area full of parks and green space stretching along the Detroit River in the city’s downtown area.

The Detroit Riverwalk is owned by a mix of public and private owners but overseen by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. The groundbreaking took place on a portion of riverfront that was formerly home to the Uniroyal tire company, whose factory there closed in 1978. It will be the final stretch of land along the riverwalk to be completed between Joe Louis Arena and Gabriel Richard Plaza, next to the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle.

“We started 20 years ago when the riverfront was covered with abandoned buildings and broken up parking lots, and we had a vision to do 3 1/2 miles that would connect everything from the Renaissance Center to Belle Isle with linked parks and greenways,” said Detroit Riverfront Conservancy Chairman Matt Cullen. “Today we are celebrating the groundbreaking on that last key piece, which is the Uniroyal site.”

The conservancy is a public-private partnership that oversees the entire riverwalk despite different portions of it being owned by different organizations or government bodies.

The Uniroyal site will be the final piece of the eastern half of the planned riverwalk; however, the plan is to complete a second portion stretching west from downtown Detroit.

“When we started, we were focused on the 3 1/2 miles to the east,” explained Cullen. “Pretty early in the process, we started to aspire a little higher. We wanted to go (MacArthur) Bridge to (Ambassador) Bridge, and that’s 5 1/2 miles. Even as we’re finishing the eastern half, we’re already planning for the west.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was among the speakers, and he thanked the many people and groups who made the riverwalk possible, including the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, General Motors Co. and the Kresge Foundation. He also lauded how quickly the existing portions of the riverwalk have become a landmark of the city.

“Twenty years ago, the Detroit riverfront was owned by vacant industrial buildings and private developers. Today, it’s owned by the people of the city of Detroit. This has become the place where people come together — people of all ages, all incomes, all backgrounds. It is now Detroit’s gathering place,” he said. “One day, you’ll be able to walk from bridge to bridge in this city, enjoying the entire length of the Detroit riverfront.”

The conservancy expects to be done with the eastern stretch in a little more than a year with all work completed by the fall of 2022. The first part of the riverwalk was started in 2004, when General Motors built the Wintergarden outside the Renaissance Center and additional work stretched out from there.

“I have been working in the Renaissance Center for more than 20 years, and I have had a front row seat out my window to all the changes that have happened in that time,” said Terry Rhadigan, the executive director of communications and citizenship for General Motors. “There used to be nothing here as far as you could see. Empty parking lots, crumbling buildings, abandoned cars. Now I see a city, I see vibrancy, I see people.”

Chris Korleski, the director of the Great Lakes National Program Office for the Environmental Protection Agency, said a good deal of effort had to go in to ensure the safety and cleanliness of the site after decades of industrial work there.

“We loved the idea of the riverwalk when the Riverfront Conservancy came to us to talk about it. It made perfect sense, but the difficulty was that in order to build the riverwalk, there was going to be an impact to the sediments in the river,” he said. “That sediment was contaminated with a lot of petroleum hydrocarbon byproducts from numerous sites over decades — what is called legacy contamination.”

While Korleski said that removing every bit of contaminated sediment is prohibitively expensive, the EPA was able to “cap” the contaminated sites to keep whatever is contaminated from moving elsewhere, such as the river. He said that the efforts were very successful and now the site is ready to become as attractive and welcoming as the rest of the riverwalk.

“One of the things we have found is that if you take an area that is environmentally contaminated and nobody wants to go there — maybe the water’s dirty, maybe you can’t eat the fish, maybe it isn’t somewhere you can swim — if you go in and do what needs to be done, which in this case was going in and cleaning a lot of old legacy contaminated sediments, you have the opportunity to restore that area environmentally as well as making it a place where people want to be,” said Korleski.

He added that by making somewhere such as the Uniroyal site attractive to visitors, it also opens up the area for economic development.

Cullen described the way the Uniroyal site should look when it is completed and agreed that the area will be a prime location for new homes and businesses in the city.

“It will be similar to the rest of the riverwalk. What is different is that this entire span around the Uniroyal site will have two different levels for separate uses for walking and biking and so on. Also, it will have a good seating wall along the waterfront to watch the boats go under the MacArthur Bridge,” said Cullen. “It also opens up the 40 acres (behind it) for development. This is probably the best development site in town now. What we have seen along the rest of the riverfront is that once we invest in the riverwalk and create those spaces, economic development follows very quickly.”

Cullen added that there has already been $2 billion in development along the riverwalk. He believes that the riverwalk as a whole will be a huge step in changing the nature of Detroit in a very positive way.

“It changes the way people interact in the city. I grew up in the city and it’s been a long time since everybody could come together and you saw so much diversity and people enjoying themselves and being with others,” he remarked. “That’s what makes a great city. You can ride a bike, you can read a book, you can listen to a concert. There’s something here for everybody.”