Rollin’ on the River

How the woman leading this massive effort helped create a haven down by the Detroit riverside

aye Nelson is a native Detroiter who is leaving an indelible mark in the Motor City, and she has the before-and-after photos of Detroit’s once ravaged, now lavish urban river walk to prove it.

Nelson, once Kmart corporate counsel and a Wayne State University vice president, was appointed president and CEO of the non-profit Detroit RiverFront Conservancy in 2003. The project that spans 3.5 miles-45 city blocks-of paved, railed and decorated space has cost more than $300 million raised from private-public partnerships.

And this clean, safe corridor running alongside the international waterway has become an in-town destination, attracting walkers, runners, bikers and people-watchers of all stripes.

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This month, as hundreds of thousands attend the annual Detroit River Days Festival, the Conservancy is kicking off a $34 million drive to complete another phase of the planned 5.5-mile development that will ultimately stretch from the Ambassador Bridge to the waterfront section of the old Uniroyal site at the foot of the Belle Isle Bridge.

You recently announced the new KaBoom! Riverfront Playpark. How do you describe the RiverWalk and other Conservancy city spaces?

The RiverWalk is a wide, paved walking and biking path with playground space, benches, water fountains, a merry-go-round, grass, flowers and 2,400 newly planted shrubs and trees. It runs behind Cobo, Hart Plaza, Chene Park, and in the next phase we’re moving further east, to Belle Isle. There also is the Dequindre Cut, which was a deserted railroad underpass and is now a vibrant recreational space for walkers and bikers. It takes pedestrians from the RiverFront right into Eastern Market. We have rules of conduct so that everyone feels safe and respected. This is revitalizing our city. It’s what our city deserves.

What are the RiverWalk’s benefits?

This calming space on the water is improving the quality of life in our city. People come here to relax and so they smile and speak with one another. It’s non-motorized so people get out of their cars and walk, run or bike, so that’s improving health. It’s a green space, so it’s good for the environment as well.

How do you respond to people who feel the focus on the riverfront is at the expense of other parts of the city?

No city tax dollars have been used. The Conservancy is a non-profit that has formed a public / private partnership. Private partnerships include the Kresge Foundation and its $50 million grant. There is the public collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources for Milliken State Park and Harbor, just to the west of Chene Park, the first urban state park in Michigan. Then there are the corporate contributions, like General Motors that spent $500 million renovating the Ren Cen, including building a riverfront plaza that it then donated to the Conservancy. 

There is research showing the RiverFront is attracting people downtown, and they spend money downtown. Development is attracted to downtown by the RiverFront. We’re proud to say this project is helping to revitalize and sustain the entire city.

How were development decisions made?

The Conservancy has involved the community throughout. We are the permanent stewards of the waterfront, in charge of operating, maintaining and securing the RiverWalk, so we have a community board and meet regularly with area residents and community groups.

How can other Detroiters get involved with the Conservancy?

Rivière28 is a group of young professional residents who are a part of the Conservancy. They are planning activities and events. Their first event, Light up the Riverfront, is June 7 in Milliken State Park, where they’ll release lanterns and have a pig roast. You can find them on their own Facebook page.

What advice do you offer those seeking a path to success?

Well, I’m up by 6 a.m. and I start off my morning with a two-mile run on the treadmill while catching up with the day’s news. I work in a job that I love, and it takes a lot of work to develop the RiverFront, so I’m not a clock-watcher. But, I will say, you must also seek that balance and take time for yourself. My down time is spent reading, golfing and traveling with my husband, sometimes to visit some of my six grandchildren, sometimes just traveling.

Who offers you personal support?

My husband, Al. He’s an amazingly smart lawyer, my biggest supporter and my best friend. We met when I was an attorney with Kmart and his firm was working on a case with a colleague. We became friends and have been married for 22 years. We have a supportive relationship because we truly want to be together. We love and respect each other, and we’re both willing to put in the work to have a quality relationship. I’m truly blessed.

Alicia Nails is the director of the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity at Wayne State University.

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