What Memphis can learn from Detroit’s riverfront transformation

Detroit’s once heavily industrialized riverfront has transformed into a hugely popular family friendly gathering space over the past decade, and Memphis’ riverfront is experiencing a similar resurgence with more that can still be done.

“Detroit has undergone an incredible transformation over the past 10 years,” said Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy (DRC). “The riverfront was heavily industrialized for over a century and in less than a decade we turned that industrial blight into an amazing place for families and people.”

Riverfront developers from Memphis and Detroit get the chance to share successes and new ideas this week as they meet in Memphis.

Today the east riverfront in Detroit, dubbed the Detroit RiverWalk, is a series of connected parks with fountains, carousels, boat docking, bike rentals and retail areas. The DRC is a nonprofit organization responsible for the establishment, improvement, operation, maintenance, security, programming and expansion of the RiverWalk and associated green spaces. The RiverWalk opened in 2006 and includes permanent and temporary spaces.

“That’s one of things I encourage Memphis and everyone to think about: what’s the ratio of temporary versus permanent spaces?” said Wallace.

“Doing long-term improvements (like Detroit did by putting in a carousel) means a lot to a lot of people, but you can have equally impactful results with a temporary beer garden or pop-up basketball courts or a pop-up pool. There are many interventions that don’t necessary cost very much and aren’t envisioned to be in place for as long.”

The temporary RiverPlay pop-up park makes its debut on the Memphis riverfront in May, and successful temporary beer gardens debuted Downtown last year.

“Today we have about three million people who come to the Detroit riverfront on an annual basis, which is a great success in our mind,” said Wallace. “About $134 million in investment into the riverfront has yielded more than $1 billion of private development, and economists tell us we are expecting to see another $1 billion in the next 10 years.”

While in town, Wallace hopes to learn more about the Greenline and Big River Crossing as Detroit has completed its own rails-to-trails project, the Dequindre Cut, an old two-mile train line that now connects a Farmer’s Market to the riverfront.

The city is working on two additional greenways this year that will connect more people to their riverfront.

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy was founded by a group from General Motors, the Kresge Foundation and the City of Detroit, and the nonprofit has been able to leverage a broad range of relationships to accomplish the changes. Wallace thinks Memphis could accomplish similar things through a partnership.

“From what I understand of the riverfront in Memphis, there is a similar opportunity to leverage broad relationships for a common goal,” he said. “Memphis is an incredible city with an amazing history and an amazing future.”

Wallace will lead a discussion hosted by the Riverfront Development Corp. April 20 at 5 p.m. at the Cossitt Library.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
Signup for Email Alerts