At times, the view from his 17th-floor Renaissance Center office leaves Detroit Riverfront Conservancy President and CEO Mark Wallace awestruck. From his perch above the city, he can take in the remarkable transformation of Detroit’s amazing riverfront, which his organization has made possible since its founding in 2003.
What was once perceived as an industrial wasteland is now home to the Detroit Riverwalk, which began with the construction of the half-mile path that stretches from the Renaissance Center to Cullen Plaza. The east riverfront stretches more than 3 miles from the site of the former Joe Louis Arena to Gabriel Richard Park, just past the historic Douglas MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle State Park. The 3.5-mile vision for the east riverfront will be complete this fall with the extension of the Riverwalk along the former Uniroyal property.
Bustling with activity, the Riverwalk provides users easy access not only to the Detroit River waterway, with its Windsor skyline views, but it’s linked to numerous Detroit gems such as Hart Plaza, General Motors Plaza, Cullen Plaza, Milliken State Park, the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater, the Dequindre Cut Greenway, and Robert C. Valade, Mount Elliott, and Gabriel Richard parks.
“The most exciting part of any city is the place where people from different backgrounds come together. In Detroit, that happens every day on the Riverwalk,” says Wallace, who became the Riverfront Conservancy’s CEO in 2014. “It offers parks, plazas, pavilions, greenways, and open spaces along the riverfront that are accessible to anyone. I see people there meditating, listening to live music, holding team-building events, taking selfies, hosting group exercise sessions, and more.”
Depending on the time of year, those taking advantage of the Riverwalk are also bicycling, jogging, fishing the Detroit River, dining outdoors, cooling off on splash pads or the Valade Park beach, shopping, perusing colorful, landscaped garden rooms, or simply relaxing by the river as watercraft of all sizes — from kayaks to freighters — glide past. Children can be seen climbing on a variety of playscapes or riding the Cullen Family Carousel.
The way in which the area has sprung to life during the past two decades is a major reason the Detroit Riverwalk was voted the Best Riverwalk in the country in USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards last year.
“Our whole team felt encouraged and invigorated by that award,” Wallace says. “The experts who ran that competition paid attention to the Detroit Riverwalk because it’s gone through such a radical transformation, and because of the positive economic and social impacts it’s had. However, what really pushed us over the top is the love of the city.”
While appreciative and humbled by the national recognition, Wallace and his team soon turned their attention to all the excitement 2022 has in store.
The final phase of the Riverwalk’s eastern section, linking Mount Elliott Park to Belle Isle’s bridge and Gabriel Richard Park, is expected to be completed by fall. The extension is being built through the former Uniroyal Tire Co. site, which has stood dormant for 40 years.
The Riverfront Conservancy is also overseeing this year’s completion of the Southwest Greenway path, which will run along an old railway between Michigan Central Station (Ford Motor Co.’s big renovation building project near Michigan Avenue, west of downtown) and the riverfront at Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park, along West Jefferson Avenue beyond the Riverfront Towers.
The park is mostly open green space, but that will begin to change later this year with a groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of several improvements.
“This year is a special year for us,” says Wallace, a Chelsea native who moved to Detroit in 1999. “Completing the final section of the east riverfront will allow people to walk from the site of the former Joe Louis Arena to the Belle Isle Bridge, and it’s really the culmination of the initial vision for the Riverwalk. We’re also excited about the Southwest Greenway because it will make it easy for families on the southwest side to reach the riverfront.”
While the list of things to see and do along the Riverwalk is lengthy, here are some must-dos visitors and residents alike will enjoy.
Cullen Plaza — Located next to the Renaissance Center, the plaza features a large carousel complete with dancing swans and sea serpents. There’s also a children’s playscape and a booth where you can purchase tickets for the Diamond Jack Riverboat.
Within the plaza is Wheelhouse Detroit, which offers bike rentals.
Milliken State Park — Riverwalk users are encouraged to veer off into Michigan’s first urban state park, which has its own paved paths that wind through a wetlands demonstration area.
The 31-acre park also has covered picnic areas, shoreline fishing, and a 63-foot lighthouse. The park’s popular berm, which visitors love climbing, will reopen in May after undergoing improvements, including an asphalt pathway to the top.
Nearby is the Michigan DNR Outdoor Adventure Center, which boasts many hands-on exhibits featuring outdoor pursuits such kayaking and fishing, along with an indoor waterfall and an aquarium containing 154 different species of fish.
Mount Elliott Park — A Great Lakes schooner-themed splash pad featuring water cannons, wind chimes, and waterfalls is the highlight. There’s also a fishing pier, walkways, and a cafe/gift shop.
Robert C. Valade Park — In addition to a beach complete with chairs and umbrellas, this park also offers sand volleyball.
There’s also a children’s musical garden and playscapes, a community barbecue pavilion, two restaurants, and Detroit’s only floating bar.
Dequindre Cut — The 2-mile paved greenway is mostly below street level and has separate lanes for walking and biking. It runs from Atwater Street in front of Milliken State Park to Mack Avenue.
Gabriel Richard Park — Highlights include butterfly gardens, lush landscaping, Detroit River fishing, a paved labyrinth, a pavilion, and a birding station with four wildlife-spotting scopes.
Riverwalk Garden Rooms — Beautifully landscaped, the Garden Rooms, which span from GM Plaza to Cullen Plaza, provide visitors with quiet places to enjoy unique pieces of urban art.
“As a native Detroiter, I’ve witnessed the expansion and development of our riverfront into a world-class, award-winning public space, and it’s been amazing,” Detroit Riverfront Conservancy Communication Specialist Chiara Clayton says. “I love to have access to the water and a big, beautiful space for bike riding, meeting up with friends, or attending fun events. It’s one of the things that makes Detroit such a special city.”
Adds Wallace: “There are so many hidden gems along the Riverwalk and Dequindre Cut that each time you visit, you discover something new.”
That’s one of the reasons why Wallace estimates that the Detroit Riverfront sees 3.5 million visitors annually and that Riverwalk usage has increased 20 percent since the pandemic began.
“People live in cities because they want to be around other people — simple as that,” he says. “People come to the Riverwalk to spend time outdoors and stay strong through hard times. They get a sense of peace from getting exercise and spending time in nature, near the amazing river. The Riverwalk might look like a park, but it’s really a significant piece of community infrastructure.”
By 2024, that infrastructure will include the all-new Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park, featuring a water area with a winding pond connected to the Detroit River, and a five-acre playground with animal-themed structures.
The 22-acre park will also be home to the William Davidson Sport House, named after the late Detroit Pistons owner, and The Lawn, which will be a large, open green space. Another feature will be a raised canopy containing two open-air basketball courts and space for other activities.
LOOKING AHEAD: Eventually, Wallace says, the West Riverwalk will be 2 miles in length, stretching from the former Joe Louis Arena site to Riverside Park, just past the Ambassador Bridge.