A Few Questions With … Craig Fahle

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s decade of working to transform the city’s waterfront is paying off.

Success and Detroit … two words that we haven’t seen paired together enough in recent years. With so much of the attention focused on the decline of Detroit, it’s not surprising that genuine success stories get crowded out. When we talk about Detroit’s true “jewels,” we really must now include the riverfront. Frankly, it’s a jewel we had neglected for decades. Rapid industrialization led to quick development of the waterfront … with little thought to access for those of us who live here. Factories were placed next to condominiums. Cement silos next to public parks. Quality urban planning wasn’t exactly the city’s forte in the early 20th century. Fortunately, that’s changed. In the last decade, the riverfront has been opened up and transformed into something we can legitimately be proud of. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy took on the task of rethinking our waterfront 10 years ago, and what a difference a decade makes. Anyone who hopes to explore the city really should start with a trip to the RiverWalk. The three miles of pathways are beautiful, family-friendly, clean, and free … with a lot more still to come. I recently sat down with Faye Nelson, president and CEO of the Conservancy, and its board chair, Matt Cullen, who also heads up the M-1 Rail project.

CF: What was this project like in its earliest days? What was the level of faith that this could work?
FN: I think in the early days the level was quite strong. Strong with respect to those individuals and organizations that did believe that Detroit had a future, that a waterfront could be developed, and that we could work together as a community. That being said, when we first began this journey, there was, quite frankly, quite a bit of skepticism in the sense that we live in a community that is not known for its ability to work together. The city vs. the suburbs, suburbs vs. the city … but this was an opportunity to come together and demonstrate that we could work together and we could accomplish great things.

CF: Matt, the Conservancy is an organization that doesn’t have a lot of overhead; it’s not bloated in any way … about a dozen people work on this on a day-to-day basis. How important is that?
MC: That’s a good point. This is a lean and very capable staff and organization. It’s incumbent that we demonstrate that we can do it that way, that we can do it efficiently, that we can be very thoughtful about how we deploy resources. We don’t have a tax base or something else that we can tax or borrow against. All of the money that we raise we get through philanthropy and through working with our partners. We’re very thoughtful about how we spend that money, how we staff up, and how we maintain the property. That’s really helped us. This isn’t an organization that was put together to build a one-time project. This is an organization that was set up to transform the riverfront and maintain it for the next 100 years. It has to be sustainable.

Omni Talon, before and after

CF: One of the things that seems to have made this project so successful is that at its heart, it’s about giving riverfront access to the people. Economic development is obviously a goal, too … but at the center, it’s about creating something people can use. How important was that in getting people to buy into what you were doing?
FN: For decades, the riverfront has been in such major disrepair. When you travel to other parts of the world, you come back and ask yourself, “Why can’t we do something with our waterfront?” There is such a sense of pride that’s developing as a result of this beautiful waterfront. We have so many phone calls of people requesting information. … We’re on the list of the top five places for family reunions. So it has been a journey of pride and emotion for the whole community, and just as importantly, this project has demonstrated its economic value and contribution to the city.

 MC: It really was economic development right from the beginning. When we started the project, we had a number of goals we had to meet in order to get all of the funding. One of them was $200 million of economic development along the riverfront. Much like the M-1 Rail line, right from the first day, we said, ‘Look, we can create this great public space, but it’s not pure philanthropy. It’s going to pay back to our community.’ Because of the 2008 downturn, that went a little slower than we expected, but it’s really coming on gangbusters now. We’ve just released a new study that shows we’ve created a billion dollars’ worth of economic impact on the community so far. It’s a win-win in that sense. We’re creating a great public space, and it changes the image that people have of the city of Detroit. It allows people to come together in a unique way. It does all of that, but it also creates an environment that gives people confidence to invest in the city, as well.

CF: I think what excites a lot of people about this project is that it’s not finished yet … they’re already happy with the results, and there are still a couple of miles of riverfront yet to be developed.
MC: There will be tremendous improvement over the next couple of years. We’ll have completed Mt. Elliott Park, there will be this beautiful water park for kids … we’ll really start to connect the missing links to connect Joe Louis to the MacArthur (Belle Isle) bridge. I think Belle Isle will be vastly improved over that period of time, as well. The Dequindre Cut will be extended past Eastern Market to the New Center area, and we’ll really start to work on the west riverfront, as well … a lot of expansion and enhancements to come. I think it’s primed to see tremendous new development in the next few years. I think we’ll see significant new residential development, continued expansion of the office activities there, new restaurants and retail. On all of the metrics that we look at, it points to continued improvement.

CF: Matt Cullen, does this success impact how you approach the plans for the M-1 Rail system?
MC: It impacts it a lot. This is a template for what we need to do with M-1. It’s very much the same kind of community and philanthropic project … that will be good for the community, and also have similar economic benefit. But we need to keep everybody interested … because it’s really easy to kill a project like this, but it’s really hard to nurture it. But once it’s done, it’s a similar project because it creates an infrastructure we can build on. These are the two spines of Detroit: the riverfront and Woodward. Tying them together is a huge driver for economic development.
FN: We are thrilled with this first 10 years, and we’re very optimistic of what the next 10 years will bring.

Rivard Plaza, before (left) and after (right)
Dequindire Cut, before and after