Building partnerships to redevelop riverfronts in Flint and Detroit

Partnerships not only provide the capital to make large conservation projects possible, they also bring different levels of expertise to the table that can move development forward and increase the number of opportunities for visitors.

The Detroit Riverwalk — which currently runs from just west of downtown nearly to Belle Isle — is one of the most visited spots in the city next to places like Ford Field and Little Caesar’s Arena. “I just think we've done a great job since the inception of the organization, to make people feel comfortable, to make people feel welcome, to make people feel safe,” Will Smith, Chief Financial Officer for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy (DRC), says of the Riverwalk’s success.


“In order for the riverfront to feel well rounded and for people to feel welcome on the riverfront,” Smith explains, “we have to have different opportunities.”


And the Riverwalk and its various destinations offer visitors a diversity of opportunities for recreation that includes playgrounds, entertainment venues, and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Outdoor Adventure Center. All this is in addition to the more ineffable pleasures of being outside with views of the water and the sense of safety and connection that people seem to feel in heavily used public spaces.


The work on Detroit’s riverfront is part of a larger trend in cities throughout the country to transition waterfronts from industrial to recreational uses, increasing opportunities for recreation, and attracting investment. But putting together accessible and popular open-spaces can be difficult for cities that have experienced financial setbacks, particularly when dealing with the expensive and complicated tasks of redeveloping once industrial waterfronts.


However, both Detroit and Flint are successfully moving forward with waterfront redevelopment plans by using public funds from sources like government agencies, private foundations, and the Michigan Natural Resources Trusts Fund (MNRTF), which has used over a billion dollars from the sale of oil and mineral rights to purchase land since 1976.


Collectively, these partners not only provide the capital to make large conservation projects possible, they also bring different levels of expertise to the table that can move development forward and increase the number of opportunities for visitors.


In Detroit, Smith says that partnerships were essential for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to even begin work. At its inception, the City of Detroit partnered with General Motors–who had recently purchased the Renaissance Center and was interested in connecting its river frontage with other destinations–and the Kresge Foundation, which a gift of $50 million to get the project off the ground.

John Revel, Detroit River. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Other partnerships were crucial as well, including a unique arrangement with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) that allowed the DRC to take advantage of federal highway dollars. MDOT was able to use these funds while also becoming the project manager for the Riverwalk, installing much of the actual pathway that people use today.


Likewise, the DNR brought its own unique expertise to the riverfront, part of the larger by state agencies to have more of a presence in urban centers. The DNR installed the Outdoor Adventure Center, which gives city kids and visitors a chance to learn about wildlife, fishing, and gardening and has also partnered on a Fishing Fest.


The MNRTF also helped by acquiring the old Free Press site on West Jefferson, the future home of the 22-acre Ralph C. Wilson Park where there are plans for an animal-themed playground and fishing pier among other things. Smith says it’s this “diversity of opportunities” that keeps people coming down to the Riverfront and its footprint continues to grow with a number of projects, including the development of the former Uniroyal site that will connect the Riverwalk with Belle Isle.


A new life for the Flint River


The removal of the Hamilton Dam in Flint–which was in disrepair and posed a flooding risk–touched off a similar process in that city, leading various partners including the Mott Foundation, City of Flint, and Genesee County Parks to reimagine the waterfront there through the Flint Riverfront Restoration Project.


“It's really the focal point of the city,” Amy Hovey, special projects coordinator for the C.S. Mott Foundation says. But like other rust-belt cities, she says, “There's not one entity that can do it on their own because we all are short on money and capacity.”


The involvement of partner organizations became especially important because the city of Flint drastically cut its spending on parks and recreation between 2008 and 2014 Hovey says it was, “non-traditional for the county to take a lead on a park development within the city.” But the involvement of the county parks department and the donation of land from the Genesee County Land Bank allowed them to string together several properties on the Flint Riverfront, including the former “Chevy in the Hole” site that was renamed Chevy Commons.

Downtown Flint River Trail.


Redeveloping this 60-plus acre site where a Chevrolet factory had stood took the involvement of a host of organizations and funding sources–including grants from the Environmental Protection agency–before Genesee County Parks purchased the land from the city with money from the MNRTF and matching funds from the Mott Foundation. It has now been redeveloped with walking trails and native plants, part of the larger effort to reconnect the city to its heavily channelized river and create a pathway through the city.


Likewise, the work on the river itself required help from various sources like the DNR’s Dam Management Grant Program, which supplied $3 million to deconstruct the Hamilton Dam. “It's been a tortuous path,” Barry June, Director for Genesee County Parks says of the difficulties of working on the river, accounting for legacy pollution, and obtaining the appropriate permits. But the end result, Hovey says, is a river that’s an asset for open space and recreation, just as it had once been for manufacturing and industry.

“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.