Re-Growing Detroit’s Urban Edge

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s competition has drawn innovative ideas.

By Zach Mortice

The Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates plan uses a series of intensely programmed pavilions at the park’s urban edge. Image courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

Update 4/10/2018: The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has chosen Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ plan as the competition winner. 

At 22 acres on a prime Detroit River site southwest of downtown, the future West Riverfront Park could become the city’s new civic front yard.

A design competition hosted by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has collected a short list of plans to fill this need, with work by GGN, James Corner Field Operations, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), and Hood Studio making the cut. The winner will be determined by jury later this month. Several of these plans deal with the site’s relative surrounding vacancy and lack of connection to active, urban uses by building up dense layers of programming, but differ on whether the park is to be a regional centerpiece or one notable amenity along the Detroit RiverWalk’s miles-long string of them.

West Riverfront Park is part of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s larger plan to rejuvenate 5.5 miles of the Detroit Riverfront. East of downtown Detroit, 3.5 miles of the RiverWalk is already complete, featuring entertainment and event spaces, sculpture gardens, cultural venues, parks, and hotels. At the confluence of downtown, Corktown, and Mexicantown, the West Riverfront Park sits near some of the city’s most dramatically resurgent (and stable) neighborhoods. But the park site has been largely barren for decades. Previously, a hulking warehouse for the Detroit Free Press dominated the site. It was privately owned and closed off to the public for about 100 years until the conservancy purchased it and installed a temporary park in 2014.

The conservancy’s president and CEO, Mark Wallace, says he wanted to activate the site as soon as possible, even though the design competition would eventually install a new scheme, because “we wanted to beta-test different uses.” So the conservancy, which has raised more than $163 million for riverfront public spaces, launched a series of programming initiatives to help gather ideas for what might work best in the park’s ultimate configuration. These included music festivals, movie nights, yoga, and bicycle gatherings. “It taught us about what the site wants to be, and it’s taught a lot of our future visitors where the site is and how to access it,” Wallace says. They learned that families in Detroit are especially hungry for high-quality public space, and that “this space can be a regional draw,” he says.

Community advisers at Gantry Plaza State Park in New York City. Photo by Stephen McGee.

Throughout this process, 21 “community advisers,” selected for their deep personal and professional networks, played a critical role. The conservancy used their expertise as Detroit neighbors to advise design teams on the types of spaces and programming they want the park to contain, and the conservancy bolstered their expertise by sending them to other cities to tour cutting-edge waterfront and park spaces. In New York, they visited Governors Island; in Chicago, the 606; and in Philadelphia, Spruce Street Harbor Park, among other sites in each city. Afterward, recent grads from the Detroit Public Schools had a chance to chat about what they learned with landscape architects such as Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA.

“When we started putting together a riverfront park, I realized how hard it was to dream without having seen what’s possible,” says Wallace. He says the community advisers are a way to ensure that Detroit residents drive the process and maintain a sense of ownership.

The James Corner Field Operations submission is composed of a series of spherical hills. Image courtesy James Corner Field Operations.

One community adviser, Khalil Ligon, is a native Detroiter who works as an urban planner with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. She traveled to Philadelphia, and was attracted to Bartram’s Garden, particularly  its sense of pastoral remove on the banks of the Schuylkill River. She says she wonders how patches of Detroit’s sparse and frayed urban fabric might be recast in a similar manner with a new park. Ligon would like West Riverfront Park to be “an educational opportunity [that] starts to pique curiosity of young people around science and nature, and give them an opportunity to have that feeling I got when I went to Bartram’s Garden.”

The most consistent advice the community advisers gave designers was that the new park should provide a wide range of programming and activities. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, took those suggestions to heart. Meeting with the community advisers, he says, “was the beginning of my eventual falling in love with Detroit.” They have “a sense of confidence about their aspirations—for what they want the park to be.”

MVVA’s plan places a series of oblong pavilions that host lively, active programs along the edge of the park. “We wanted to have a very active urban edge on the city side,” says Van Valkenburgh. Building out the urban edge is a way to address the nearby vacant parcels by creating a range of attractions beyond simple green space, planning for a “park in a city that isn’t there yet,” he says.

These pavilions (designed by the architect David Adjaye) offer activities for kids through adolescents, and into adulthood. At the Pool House, Van Valkenburgh envisions swimming lessons for small children run in conjunction with local schools. “In doing that, you’re building the beginning of a generational bond to the park,” he says.

MVVA’s plan includes a fishing pier and beach. Image courtesy MVVA.

In addition to a three-acre playground, the park would also include a beach inlet, fronted by a long fishing pier that faces away from the beach. Topographically, Van Valkenburgh described the park as a series of low “dunelike” hills, except for a performance lawn that drops down by 15 feet and terminates at a floating stage.

Seedling Park is organized by a series of cursive paths, dotted with Jens Jensen-style council rings. Image courtesy Hood Studio.

Hood Studio’s plan also uses intensive programming along the park’s edge to help deal with the adjacent city’s scarcity. Dubbing his plan “Seedling Park,” Walter Hood, ASLA, Hood Studio’s creative director, has designed a horticultural center with three parts: the Seedling Tower, where high green walls will propagate plants; the Urban Lab, where the public will be invited to learn about and participate in this process; and a café.

Seedling Park’s café, adorned with green walls. Image courtesy Hood Studio.

The park and its horticultural center have an “emergent sort of feeling,” he says. “As the park manifests itself, the Urban Lab, and particularly the Seedling Tower, becomes a metaphorical expression of this larger horticultural process that takes place.”

James Corner Field Operations’s plan (developed with nArchitects and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center) offers a series of circular hills. These bring visitors to river overlooks and a long, axial pergola that runs along the park’s city side. Working with Arup and Guy Nordenson and Associates, GGN’s park contains a terraced earthen amphitheater bowl and a runway-like pedestrian path that cuts diagonally across the site, offering expansive views of the river.

GGN’s park contains a wide pedestrian path that cuts diagonally across the site. Image courtesy GGN.

So far, Ligon, the community adviser, has been pleased with what’s been on offer. She says seeing the teams’ designs made it “very obvious to me that they listened. Which is really atypical. People typically come into Detroit with their own ideas of what it should be. Everything I heard, I saw some reflection of in their plans.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

2 thoughts on “Re-Growing Detroit’s Urban Edge”

  1. All three plans are beautiful, but lack the significant component of establishing an event and activity management organization to go hand-in-hand with the facility development. There are too many failed urban design projects that prescribe to the “build it and they will come” mentality. The back of house event management structure requires advance programming input along with other interested community groups.

    Patrick Wyss, FASLA

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