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Connecting Place to People and Building Community

A Bridge to Bridge Vision is Coming to Fruition in Detroit


2023 marks the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s 20th Anniversary – and what an amazing transformation and contribution it’s made to the city over the last two decades.

Today, residents and visitors use the Detroit Riverwalk for running, biking, fishing, gathering, walking, yoga, rollerblading, birding, picnicking and just sitting back to enjoy the view. This was not the case 20 years ago when the area consisted of abandoned industry, cement silos, and overgrown brush and was completely unavailable to pedestrians.

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Time, vision, commitment, partnerships, and blood, sweat, and tears have transformed this travesty into a tremendous destination, and it continues to evolve. The addition of the Ralph C. Wilson Park – with construction underway – will be a game changer for the city in terms of connectivity, recreation, community, and education.

Twenty years ago, a “Bridge to Bridge” vision was born, and today it’s coming to fruition.

The Detroit Riverfront holds the recent distinction of three-peating the vote for the best Riverwalk in the country. And in the words of Rachel Priorson, Senior Director of Programming, “People use the space as a front yard and a backyard today and it’s programmed for health and wellness, conservation, education, arts, and culture.”

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy held a West Riverfront Public Update on April 18 with over 300 vested residents, businesses, and stakeholders present. DII covered the event.

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CEO and President Mark Wallace began with a recap of the series of parks and trails that have been constructed to date to enhance and connect the community with the riverfront. Starting on the east side he highlighted the Gabriel Richard Park, Mt. Elliot Park, the Dennis Archer Greenway, the Robert C. Valade Park, the Dequindre Cut, Milliken State Park, the Cullen Plaza, and the GM Plaza. He noted that the Uniroyal Promenade connecting Gabriel Richard Park with Mt. Elliott Park will be done this year.

Moving further West down the Riverwalk, Wallace handed it over to Rhonda Collins. Construction Manager for the DRFC who provided information on progress there.

The Downtown Development Authority-owned property just west of Riverfront Towers will connect the Riverfront Towers boardwalk with the new Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park.  This boardwalk will be 900 feet long and 15 feet wide with a custom railing system that has integrated lighting to eliminate light poles, which, says Collins,  “could hinder views and also cause glares for the residents in the Towers.”

The DDA parcel will feature seating, places to fish, three rain gardens and a walking path. This will be open to the public in the Spring of 2024.

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Further west is the highly regarded and anticipated Southwest Greenway. This provides a path from Bagley to Jefferson and connects to the Southwest Ford Mobility Hub and ultimately the Ralph C. Wilson Park and Riverwalk. The Greenway will open in May and, says Collins, “this is an example of an extraordinary idea by residents and stakeholders that manifested into a beautiful and connected greenway.”

The highlight of the meeting was the Ralph C. Wilson Park and the progress and vision around this. This 22-acre park along the west riverfront is officially underway with the development of the new William Davison Sport House which will consist of 35,000 square feet of open-air space with a raised canopy and skylight housing two regulation-size basketball courts. The site is being cleared and peers are being installed to support the columns.

A 1.7-acre Huron-Clinton Metroparks Water Garden – larger than a football field – will include a dock, a small pedestrian bridge, an island for natural habitat, a lookout point, nature trails, and lawn space.

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The Delta Dental Play Garden features three acres of land on which will sit swings, a water spray area and, a Bernstein Bear Slide.

A Mort Harris Classroom will act as an outdoor gathering and educational space surrounded by natural habitats.

The park will also include walking paths and many ways to enjoy nature.

All of this will come to life with a myriad of thoughtful programming, led by Rachel Frierson. 

Frierson explained that the vision behind the programming is Place = People, meaning “the place has to connect with people and connect people to people in meaningful ways.”

The activations will reflect three main premises:

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Health and Wellness – creating a healthier community and serving the community with a place to do so.

Conservation – preserving the wildlife and land, and education around this.

Education, Arts, and Culture – highlighting and featuring the work of artists, creators, musicians and more.

280+ volunteers are the lifeblood of the programs on the riverfront.

Says Frierson, “When it comes to programming for the Ralph C. Wilson Park, we are being very intentional about connecting people back to this space. This is an opportunity for residents and visitors to experience nature in an urban environment and to build connections to play and place.”

To that end, the four pillars for programming the park are:

  • Power of the Outdoors
  • Four Seasons of Play
  • Connecting with the Environment
  • Lessons from the River and Land

Some examples of this include a ‘four seasons of play’ approach to the Sport House that will encompass much more than basketball. The Conservancy is currently polling and communicating with residents and stakeholders for their thoughts, wants, and needs here.

The Water Garden will also work as an outdoor education area as will the Mort Harris Classroom, hosting field trips, interpretive programming and more.

Programming planning will ensue parallel to construction for the next several months.

The park is scheduled to be open in 2024.


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