Belle Isle Rides the Wave of Detroit’s Rejuvenation

Photography by Kendra Stanley-Mill
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Koi pond at Belle Isle

“There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, offer views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees. And there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living.” — Elmore Leonard


It’s no secret Detroit is rapidly climbing its way up from decades of despair, emerging as an entrepreneurial hub attracting hipsters and families alike. And the Motor City’s environmental gem, Belle Isle, the largest city-owned island park in the nation and the most visited state park in the country, is reaping the benefits of this urban turnaround.

Recently, the Belle Isle Conservancy and the Department of Natural Resources, which is in year four of its 30-year lease to manage the island, announced significant projects to bolster Belle Isle’s resources, including $1.9 million to renovate the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory and Belle Isle Aquarium, plus $400,000 to upgrade the James Scott Memorial Fountain.

Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
Restorations are planned for the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory that houses a botanical garden, as well as the James Scott Memorial Fountain that was dedicated in 1925. // Photography by Kendra Stanley-Mill

“We are literally always (just) seconds away from crisis,” said Michele Hodges, president of the conservancy. Yet, the community doesn’t see such urgencies, she said, in part because they occur underground or among natural spaces, and those who manage the island are on top of needed projects.

James Scott Memorial Fountain

Some changes will be visible this year at the conservatory and aquarium, which were designed by famed architect Albert Kahn and opened in 1904. They are “the last remaining examples of a connected facility in the world,” Hodges said.

Yearly, more than 4.2 million visitors cross the MacArthur Bridge to spend time on Belle Isle. Flatwood forest comprises 263 acres of the island’s landscape. Rowers launch from the historic Detroit Boat Club, which is undergoing its own slow-but-certain renovation.

Families also frequent the zoo, sailors coast into the Detroit Yacht Club and Detroit residents cast fishing lines from bridges overlooking the swift-moving Detroit River. There’s also golf, hiking, biking and vivid maritime history at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.

James Scott Memorial Fountain

While the need is great, the future remains bright for Belle Isle’s 982 acres, thanks to recent strategic visioning by the DNR. All developments, improvements and changes are planned through a lens of “cultural overlay,” said Amanda Treadwell, DNR urban field planner, and Katy Wyerman, vice president of funds development for the conservancy. No development will occur, they assure, without understanding the impact of and the importance of preserving the island’s “historical cultural pieces.”

“We must be careful stewards of the island’s cultural resources and respect its architectural legacy,” Treadwell said.

Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory

Belle Isle soon will boast a trailhead connecting bike and hike paths to a state-long trail known as the Iron Belle Trailhead, which begins at Iron Mountain and meanders down to Belle Isle in a series of connected paths.

Long-term planning calls for $50 million worth of improvements — some visionary, some needed, Hodges said. Including the conservatory and aquarium improvements set for this year, other urgent priorities include the James Scott Fountain near the historic casino, the Newsboys Shelter (“one of the oldest and most beautiful picnic shelters on the island that is literally falling down,” Hodges said) and a splash park to replace the water slide that came down last summer.

Those tasked with preserving the beauty and grandeur of Belle Isle have immense “gratitude to the community for standing so strong,” Hodges said. “It is a much-loved part of Detroit.”

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