The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has selected Michael Van Valkenburgh and David Adjaye as the winners of a $50-million competition to redesign a 22-acre park along the Detroit River. The Van Valkenburgh and Adjaye scheme has as its centerpiece a beach within a cove protected by a jetty that juts diagonally into the waterway. The site is part of the Conservancy’s grand plan for the waterfront west of Belle Isle to the Ambassador Bridge, a five and a half-mile stretch of former factories and rail yards, abandoned over time as Detroit collapsed into bankruptcy in 2013.

Detroit has had a long and complex relationship with its riverfront. Fredrick Law Olmsted was hired by the City in 1880 to design Belle Isle, a 700-acre park in the middle of the Detroit River, towards the east of the city center. His elegant plan was deemed too simple, he resigned in disgust, and only parts were realized. Architects such as Cass Gilbert modified Olmsted’s organic vision into a Beaux-Arts formal garden. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has been working with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy for the last decade on a plan for the East Riverfront District, and 80 percent of that 3-and-a-half mile framework is complete. The West Riverfront Park will supplement this effort. 

Last year, the Conservancy selected four design teams of architects and landscape architects as finalists, to present proposals in a public forum and exhibition—part of a long process in which the local community participated.

Each team included standard water-related features for revived waterfront sites—boardwalks, piers, docks, beaches, as well as kayaking and fishing facilities. All emphasized the need to relate the river and the city to one another, but each had its own character.

A design by Seattle-based landscape firm GGN (with Rossetti), thrust a dramatic diagonal walkway into the river on axis with the view of the suspension Ambassador Bridge. The design was possibly too elegant (and potentially too costly) for a middle class and largely underprivileged population.

The more modest concept by Hood Design Studio and West 8 (with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro) adopted a practical, incremental approach that would begin with saplings planted by children.

James Corner Field Operations (with nArchitects) introduced a trellised vegetable and flower market porch on the site’s street side, to draw in passersby. Mounds, which appeared in the model to be gently rolling hills, in plan were rigid circles reminiscent, among other things, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian bubble designs. The jury was clearly uneasy with these, as it was with the market porch, which it saw as a barrier rather than an attraction.

Like the other proposals, Van Valkenburgh’s compelling presentation deferred, in a basic, pragmatic manner, to the way people actually use parks. Their concept of the cove and the fishing pier as the single focus of the park was formally and programmatically strong. Van Valkenburgh attributes his inspiration to “having fallen in love with Detroit, and with the power of the river, I brought the two together with the cove.”