2024 Hour Detroiters: Mark Wallace

President and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.
Wallace sits under the Belle Isle bridge on the newly opened stretch of the Detroit Riverwalk he helped bring to fruition. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

The year 2023 marked the 20th anniversary of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s transformation of the riverfront.

What was once an unsightly industrial wasteland along the banks of the city’s international waterway is now a beautiful attraction that has drawn 3 million visitors annually and $2 billion in private and public investments. In the past three years, it has earned consecutive USA Today readers’ choice designations as the best riverwalk in America.

The man who has led the monumental charge — and challenge — of the redevelopment for the past nine years is Indian Village resident Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

“My goal working in Detroit has always been to raise the quality of life for people in the city, and I like to find things with potential and help them be transformed,” says Wallace, whose resume includes jobs as a Detroit high school teacher, a real estate project manager and director for Hines Interests LP, leasing director for the GM Renaissance Center, and an assistant project manager for the Detroit Riverwalk.

“The Riverwalk represents one of the most profound transformations of a cityscape anywhere in the country, and it includes a significant improvement in environmental conditions, because every project we touched is a brownfield site,” Wallace says. “But most importantly, it has brought diverse populations together to interact while spending time in beautiful natural spaces.”

The nonprofit was launched in 2003 under the leadership of Faye Nelson, its inaugural president and CEO, and board Chair Matthew P. Cullen, with three founding partners: the city of Detroit, General Motors Co., and The Kresge Foundation, which provided a $50 million matching grant that helped land an additional $110 million from a broad coalition of supporters.

In total, since 2003, the conservancy has invested more than $300 million and expanded the original 3.5-mile vision to add an additional 2 miles of river walkway stretching westward to the Ambassador Bridge.

Under Wallace’s leadership, the conservancy completed the east riverfront in October 2023 and instituted interactive innovative programming for visitors that includes, among other things, a fishing fest for children, a riverfront run, and seasonal activities. It also moved forward with the 2-mile westward expansion, which included building a river boardwalk next to the private, gated Riverfront Towers, a vital connection to the 22-acre Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park projected to open in the second quarter of 2025.

Made possible by a $50 million grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, the park will include a 5-acre playground, a water garden that provides direct access to the river, a sport house with basketball courts, and a huge lawn for special events, free concerts, and movies. Wallace expects that the park will draw “at least 1 million visitors annually.”

Last May, the conservancy opened the half-mile Southwest Greenway trail that provides a critical connection from Ford Motor Co.’s Michigan Central campus, Roosevelt Park, and Corktown to the west riverfront and Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park. Meanwhile, Wallace is focused on completing the last section of the Riverwalk, which will connect Wilson Park to Riverside Park at the Ambassador Bridge.

“Twenty years ago, I don’t think most people believed what the Riverfront Conservancy envisioned was possible,” says Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “For 300 years, Detroit had a working industrial riverfront that was almost entirely inaccessible to the public. It’s all anybody, including myself, ever knew. Today, thanks in great part to Mark’s leadership and his ability to forge sustaining partnerships, Detroit families will be able to enjoy a truly world-class riverfront for the next 300 years.”

This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.