A competition to design a new park on the Detroit River illuminates the Motor City’s impressive makeover.
We won’t be the first report that Detroit—the gray-skied setting for a few Elmore Leonard crime novels and an emblem for the country’s faded manufacturing economy—has turned itself around in a big way. The city is a seriously happening place nowadays, with a growing roster of innovative restaurants and hotels, an ever-brightening downtown scene, and—most importantly—perhaps the country’s most passionate and engaged band of boosters. And if a quartet of proposals for a new 22-acre riverfront park is an accurate indicator of things to come, the Motor City may soon step up as America’s most inviting urban center.
The final round of an international design competition led by the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy (DRFC), the proposals aim to imagine the West Riverfront Park as it could be: attractive, environmentally responsible, and people friendly. The city acquired the land, once the site of a newspaper printing plant, from the Detroit Free Press back in 2007. At the moment, it is little more than an empty field across the river from Windsor, Ontario, and about a mile and a half downstream of the towering Renaissance Center, the global headquarters of General Motors. But the revitalized space will be the anchor of a $50 million plan to revive 5.5 miles of public space along the Detroit River, stretching from the Ambassador Bridge to Gabriel Richard Park. The first phase of the project, which encompasses 3.5 miles along Detroit’s east riverfront, is more than 80 percent complete.
The competition’s four finalists include New York–based James Corner Field Operations, Seattle-based Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, New York–based Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, and Oakland-based Hood Design Studio. In creating their proposals, the teams conferred and collaborated with design firms in Detroit and around Michigan—and, notably, with actual Detroiters. The DRFC set up a Community Advisory Team composed of a cross-section of Detroit residents and facilitated visits to beloved city parks in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.
The results, we think you’ll agree, are impressive.