Last week the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy announced that New York based firm, Michael Valkenburgh Associates, as the winner of the West Riverfront Park design competition. The firm, whose previous works include the Brooklyn Bridge Park in NYC and Maggie Daley Park in Chicago, have plans to transform 22 acres of underused land along the Detroit River into a beach oasis of recreation. The only thing standing in the way is millions of dollars in funding, which the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy seems confident they will be able to raise quickly. Simple enough, right?

John Patrick of ABOVE THE FOLD. Photo credit Rafael Gamo

We reached out to John Patrick of Above the Fold to discuss what this news means for the landscape of Detroit as well as the implications for future architectural projects.

DII: The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy announced the winner of the West Riverfront competition. What does this mean for Detroit?

John Patrick: This means we will have a park unlike any other that’s ever existed in Detroit. A place for all people, all ages, to gather, relax, socialize, play, meditate. And we will hopefully finally be able to safely play in the river!

DII: We’ll assume you’re familiar with all the candidates. What is it about the winning firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, New York, that stands out among the rest?

JP: MVVA is one of our nation’s top landscape firms for a number of reasons. First, Michael van Valkenburgh was the chair of the landscape department at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Second, he is a passionate believer in the power of parks to inspire people, and he understands how to maneuver through the hoops and hurdles of getting amazing public spaces built. A design is no good on a shelf. Third, there was an unparalleled authenticity that MVVA and their team brought to the interview; the energy of their animated and interactive presentation captured the spirit of Detroiters, and I believe it was precisely that feeling of comfort, ease and “we are going to get this done for Detroit” that won our hearts.

DII: Mark Wallace, CEO of the DRFC, stated that his goal is to start construction in 18-24 months. How realistic is this goal?

JP: Shovels in the ground with site excavation and such? Very. There’s a lot of pre-construction work to be done.

DII: Where does the greatest difficulty lie in raising funds for architectural projects in Detroit?

JP: I haven’t been through that process yet but I would say getting the successful entrepreneurs and business owners to understand Detroit is on a huge comeback for the 21st century, and being a philanthropist at this time is so very important for realizing the city’s full potential. Their legacy lives on through projects like the West Riverfront Park and others to come.

DII: Do you think this project will pave the way for other similarly ambitious projects in Detroit?

JP: Absolutely, I hope. And at all scales – True North cost 1/50th of what the park will, but it’s impact has been felt locally, nationally and even internationally.

Prince Concepts, True North. Photo by Chris Miele

DII: Tell us about Above the Fold. What do you do that we need to know.

JP: ABOVE THE FOLD is a Detroit-based press & communications agency working with clients in architecture, design, culture and real estate. My work representing emerging and established architects, designers, and other talent whose work focuses on the built environment is under a newly formed company, Architecture Talent Agency.

DII: Why do you choose Detroit as your home base?

JP: I bought some real estate off Craigslist in early 2015, and as I started to visit I simply fell in love with the place. It has soul, it has beauty, it has grit, and I felt that professionally my expertise in and passion for architecture and urban development could be an asset to everyone who has or is planning a building project.

DII: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is from NY. What do you think these two cities, Detroit and New York, stand to teach each other when it comes to architecture and city planning?

JP: To borrow from my client WOHA’s latest book, Garden City Mega City, “high-density high-amenity” loving is so important for the 21st century city. New York has both, and Detroit should too! On the flip side, New York needs to not scrub itself too clean and shiny.

DII: Have any favorite projects happening in Detroit right now, and if so, what are they?

JP: Architecturally, I think Bedrock’s Monroe Block will be a superb contemporary development. The architects are Danish and I lived in Copenhagen while working at BIG, so I’m really excited for that team to bring those qualities of design to Detroit. I am also very excited about another a unique residential project in Core City that an acclaimed NYC-based architecture firm is just starting to design. And there are others, of course.

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