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Excerpt: The Woodward Corridor, from riverfront to Midtown, was key to advancing Detroit’s revitalization

Centennial, Detroit

Tony Proscio

Tony Proscio

Myron Farber

Myron Farber

John Gallagher

John Gallagher

Excerpt from newly published book about Kresge and Detroit charts impact of $50 million grant to Riverfront Conservancy and other efforts along Woodward

Each Monday through April and into May, will feature excerpts from Embracing a City: The Kresge Foundation in Detroit 1993-2023 (Momentum Books). This behind-the-scenes look into 30 years of Kresge’s unlikely partnerships, unique collaborations, varied financial tools, and bold bets — originally the work of veteran journalists Tony Proscio and Myron Farber — was first released in 2018, covering 1993 to 2017. An updated edition includes a new chapter from Proscio covering the creation of the cradle-to-career Marygrove P-20 campus following the demise of Marygrove College in Northwest Detroit. Meanwhile, longtime Detroit-based journalist John Gallagher has revised and updated the earlier edition chapters.

Chapter 2 begins with the historical importance of Woodward Avenue, “the All-American Road … the spine of Detroit,” which runs from the Detroit River, across the city’s north border at 8 Mile Road, and into the “suburbs that were open fields when the city was an industrial powerhouse” from the heyday of its pre-auto industries through the early post-World War II years.

With the closing of the iconic J.L. Hudson department store in 1983, the building’s implosion in 1998 and the continued loss of other retail establishments and office workers, the city’s decline – reflected in its downtown – was undeniable. Chapter 2 tells the story of Kresge and others who worked together to prove that the momentum of decline, with concerted effort, could be reversed.

“In the 1990s, and well into the early 2000s, the riverfront east of downtown was a postindustrial wasteland defined by empty warehouses and glass-strewn parking lots.

–Embracing a City

In the 1990s, and well into the early 2000s, the riverfront east of downtown was a postindustrial wasteland defined by empty warehouses and glass-strewn parking lots. The three small, uninviting parks facing the river were largely inaccessible. The city had long eyed the area for recreation or housing, and in 1998, it rezoned fifty-seven acres for casinos. But the casinos went elsewhere in the city.

Kresge took on this neglect in 2002 with a $50 million grant, as the largest driver in remaking what Rip Rapson later called “Detroit’s front porch.” The idea was to convert 5½ miles of the riverfront to public use as a promenade and parkland with prospects for residential and commercial activity, all the while improving the city’s image and encouraging economic development downtown. Joining Kresge in this effort were the city and General Motors, whose towering, fortresslike Renaissance Center, its newly adopted world headquarters, was both by the river and walled off from it. GM had already spent $500 million to open this area to pedestrians and redesign three thousand feet of open space between its complex and the river.

In 2003 the nonprofit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy was set up to guide the rest of the transformation. Its first phase of work, along 3½ miles to the east of Joe Louis Arena, has been the handsomely landscaped RiverWalk, used by walkers, joggers, bikers, picnickers, and others, with year-round programs ranging from birding and readings to “Kids Fishing Fest” and sandlot volleyball. The RiverWalk attracts three million visitors a year, and a 2013 study, according to Kresge, found it had already catalyzed $639 million in investment. In 2023, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy estimated the new development built or planned near the waterfront totaled $1 billion. The RiverWalk is not without issues, however, and, as often is the case in Detroit and elsewhere, some of those carry a whiff of race or class. One middle-aged Black woman described the RiverWalk as “an absolute plus for the city” but largely one for “the new Detroit”—including downtown-based professionals who are put off by “baggy-pantsed, loud-talking boys from the ‘hood.’ It’s quite a balancing act,” she said.

Whether east or west of downtown—from east of the MacArthur Bridge that links to Belle Isle to the Ambassador Bridge leading to Windsor, Ontario—the five-mile riverfront is still a work in progress, with the conservancy soliciting a team of experts to advise on future development. Orleans Landing, the riverfront’s first mixed-use, mixed-income housing project, with nearly three hundred units, opened in 2017.

More recently, philanthropy provided a major boost to the west branch of the RiverWalk. In 2018 the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation announced a $50 million grant to build the twenty-two-acre Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park on a site formerly occupied by a newspaper printing plant. Meanwhile, on the far eastern end of the RiverWalk, construction continued during 2023 on the final leg across the notoriously polluted but recently cleaned up Uniroyal site; this final link will stretch from Mt. Elliott Park to Gabriel Richard Park east of the bridge to Belle Isle, creating an uninterrupted path that will join up with other greenways and paths lacing through the city.

These evolving greenways began with the Dequindre Cut, a two-mile paved trail inspired by the “rail-to-trail” movement. Its creation was led by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and supported by Kresge. The Cut—with a twenty-foot-wide paved path—was a line of the Grand Trunk Railway until the 1980s, sunk twenty-five feet below street level. When it opened in 2009, with separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians numbering hundreds on weekdays and thousands on weekends, decades of graffiti and “urban artwork” were deliberately retained on bridge abutments.

The northern terminus of the Dequindre Cut was later extended to reach the Eastern Market district, a cluster of open-air food sheds, warehouses, businesses, and galleries bordering vacant, formerly residential land. The centerpiece of the district is the market itself, opened in 1891 and covering six blocks, the largest outdoor farmers market in the country, combining wholesale and retail sales, meatpacking, and farm-grown produce from the surrounding region and community gardens in one location. It, too, has been the beneficiary of Kresge support, critically in 2006.

The 73-story GM Renaissance Center (General Motors' world headquarters) looms over a desolate landscape in this photo taken before the creation of the Detroit RiverWalk. (Photo courtesy Detroit Riverfront Conservancy)
Strollers enjoy the Detroit Riverwalk. The first stretch opened in 2007, and the RiverWalk now stretches 3.5 miles and connects parks, plazas, pavilions, pathways and open green spaces. (Kresge photo)

Thriving until the 1960s, with devoted shoppers of all ages patronizing it on Saturdays, the city-owned market had accompanied Detroit into steep decline by the 1990s. Its historic sheds, housing hundreds of open-air stalls, were in disrepair. Some customers who had left for the suburbs found it easier, or cheaper, to buy closer to home. Others questioned the freshness of fruits and vegetables at the market, where some vendors had taken to selling wilted, overripe produce brought from elsewhere, even from abroad. But the larger problem, recounted by John Gallagher in his 2013 book Revolution Detroit, was the inability of the financially ailing city “to give Eastern Market the attention it needed. The diminished police protection, the lack of city services, the inability or unwillingness to pay for normal upkeep at the market—all these took their toll. Bureaucracy at City Hall, where control of Eastern Market shuffled from one department to another, proved debilitating.”

Community leaders proposed to replace city management of the market with a professionally staffed, nonprofit public authority, as at the Riverfront Conservancy. The city would still own the market; it just wouldn’t operate it. Municipal unions vigorously opposed the move, as did their allies on the city council. The replacement agreement went through some thirty-seven rewritings and rancorous debate. Former Council Member Sheila Cockrel later recalled the debate as “one of those, you know, ‘Where do you live? Who are you? This is a city jewel. We can’t be giving away city jewels.’ It was the wrong conversation.”

But in July 2006, Kresge forced the issue by threatening to withdraw a $2 million grant in aid of a new authority. With the clock winding down, the Eastern Market Corporation was approved by a council vote of eight to one. Some departing city workers demonstrated their anger by getting into the market’s office and shredding vendor leases, purchasing and payroll data, and other key records. Since then, the corporation has received more than $31 million in philanthropic support, from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the McGregor Fund, the Ford Foundation, Kresge, and others.

Kresge’s contributions to the corporation have helped to renovate the sheds and establish a community kitchen for cooking demonstrations, seminars on healthful eating, and nutrition classes. Newly encouraged, dozens of local food entrepreneurs began to sell Detroit-based breads and pastries, locally butchered meats, cheeses, chocolates, pickles, coffee, and more on market days. Dan Carmody, who has been CEO of the market for more than a decade, has broadened his mission to include a resurgence of fresh food availability “for everyone” in Detroit and Southeast Michigan, “top to bottom.”

Kresge’s interest in the greening of Detroit extended also to Campus Martius Park, a popular 2½-acre oasis in the commercial center of downtown, at Woodward Avenue. Previously known as Kennedy Square, it was in a forlorn state in the 1990s, with a cracked concrete base and a fountain that didn’t work. To transform the park, Kresge put up $3 million, or 15 percent of the funds needed for construction and maintenance. Corporations, many doing business in the area, contributed in celebration of the three hundredth anniversary of Detroit’s founding in 1701. Again, a nonprofit organization, the Detroit 300 Conservancy, was formed to manage the site for the city in 2001. Today, this public park is promoted as the city’s “gathering place,” a spot for a relaxing lunch on the lawns and for events around the year, including a faux beach in summer and an ice-skating rink in winter.

The 300 Conservancy is now a subsidiary of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, a public-private entity for which Kresge supplies operating support, alongside nearly the full roster of local funders. Through a business improvement district and other means, the partnership underwrites clean and safe areas downtown, supports graffiti removal and power-washed streets and sidewalks, and encourages redevelopment. It is also helping to link downtown to the bike and trail network around it. Similarly, Kresge poured $12.5 million into a new Fund for Downtown Public Spaces, including $10 million for an endowment. With an additional $7 million, Kresge backed the $20 million Lower Woodward Housing Fund, providing gap financing for redevelopment and conversion of downtown buildings to residential use. The latter fund was among seventeen sources of financing for redevelopment of the venerable Book Cadillac hotel, which had been shuttered for twenty years before reopening in 2008 as the high end of Detroit hotelry. Kresge also donated $7.5 million for a new building for the Downtown YMCA and, for the first time in its capital challenge program, put the money on the front end.

To read more, visit Embracing a City’s website and order the book.