USA Today recently ranked the Detroit International RiverWalk as the top riverwalk in the United States. Why does this matter for downtown Detroit and its commercial real estate market? The riverwalk brings people to downtown. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ease, that’s a key for bringing the momentum back to downtown Detroit.
Before the pandemic hit, downtown Detroit was on a hot streak, with new hotels, restaurants and retailers opening their doors. Like most Midwest downtowns, the center of the city took a hit during the worst days of the pandemic. The streets were quiet. Office buildings sat mostly empty. And hotels struggled to find guests.
Today, though, life is slowly returning to downtown Detroit. And when more employees return to downtown office space — probably in late summer or early fall — this should provide another positive jolt to the city’s core.
And amenities such as the International Riverwalk, which now spans more than three miles from Rose Parks Blvd. to the Belle Isle Bridge along the Detroit Rivers, will help bring the people back at a faster pace.
Rhonda Collins, vice president of projects in the Detroit office of JLL and a member of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, has overseen the redevelopment of the RiverWalk. She understands just how important this feature has been to the rejuvenation of downtown Detroit.
“We ran some numbers this year and we were shocked to learn that about 3 million people a year go to the RiverWalk,” Collins said. “That is absolutely amazing. As the RiverWalk and its amenities grow, it continues to bring people to downtown from the city of Detroit and other surrounding communities.”
A big year
The RiverWalk already includes park and entertainment space. But this year will be another big one for the walk. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy will begin construction on the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park, which will bring 22 acres of park space, including a children’s play garden, to the walk. The park will also include a water garden, sports house and a central park house featuring a café and The Hill, which is designed for outdoor movies and concerts in the summer and sledding in the winter.
Construction will also begin on the Uniroyal connection, a space that will connect two of the RiverWalk’s parks and allow pedestrians to walk continuously along the river. This space will feature two-tiered concrete seating and a bike and walking path.
As a third project, the conservancy will start construction on the Southwest Greenway, a one-mile non-motorized path connecting the Southwest Detroit community to the RiverWalk and to a larger 27-mile greenway. The path will be lined with plantings and benches.
These amenities will add to the other recreation areas of the RiverWalk, including the Robert Valade Park, a 3.5-acre space with a sandy beach and children’s play area. The RiverWalk also features a barge on the Detroit River that is home to live music and entertainment.
Collins said that the conservancy will continue to add to the RiverWalk. The initial goal was to create a 5.5-mile walk, a goal that has almost been met. The next five- or 10-year plan calls for extending the walk even further.
The RiverWalk showed its worth during the pandemic, when it provided outdoor activity for Detroit residents.
“We saw the need to offer a space for the community to come together,” Collins said. “We needed to be that place where people could come and get fresh air, sit down and relax, all while social distancing.”
From December through March, the conservancy offered free activities and events at Robert Valade Park, something that was especially important during the coldest days of the pandemic. The events featured outdoor fireplaces, sledding, music provided by DJs and ice sculptures created by local artists. During Valentine’s Day, the conservancy hosted horse-and-carriage rides.
Collins said that the new projects starting this year will only boost the RiverWalk and bring more people to downtown Detroit.
Collins said she is especially excited about the Ralph C. Wilson park project.
“The park is going to be exactly what the city of Detroit needs,” she said. “We have received tons of feedback and everyone we’ve heard from is excited.”
Construction of the park will begin in the fall and last almost two years. The park is expected to open in the fall of 2023.
The big question is whether momentum is returning to downtown Detroit and whether the RiverWalk and its new offerings will play a role in continuing to boost the city’s center.
Collins doesn’t hesitate: The RiverWalk, and all that downtown Detroit offers, will bring people and new businesses back, she said. The pandemic hurt downtown Detroit. But the city’s urban core is already bouncing back, Collins said.
“Downtown Detroit is coming back alive,” Collins said. “Some companies might have realized during the pandemic that they don’t need as much office space. But they still want to be in the downtown area and be a part of all the great things that are happening in the city.”
Collins said that much of the activity in downtown Detroit starts from the RiverWalk. People then travel fro this amenity to the rest of downtown, enjoying the restaurants, bars and shopping options.
“The RiverWalk has been a total win for Detroit,” Collins said. “And as we continue to expand the RiverWalk, it will only continue to be that compete win-win for the city.”