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It’s a Shore Thing

Cities rediscover, restore their Great Lakes waterfronts

June 2, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

Detroiters are working on a $110 million river walk that will ramble from the Ambassador Bride to the Belle Isle Bridge, pictured here.

The race to remodel the Rustbelt is on. Detroit is revving up bulldozers to raze cement factories towering over the Detroit River. Gary is gunning to tear down the abandoned steel factories loitering next to Lake Michigan. And Cleveland is awaiting the green light for overhauling the busy Memorial Shoreway speeding along Lake Erie.

These and other projects clearly signal that lakes and rivers are taking on a new role in the region’s changing economy. As the Industrial Era gives way to an era where knowledge, not natural resources, is king, urban leaders across the Great Lakes Basin are hustling to clean up riverfronts, restore lakefronts, and reorient their community around newly healthy and accessible waterways. They are planning, and in some cases already beginning, to invest billions of dollars to demolish rusting factories, redesign roadways, rehabilitate harbors, and even move mountains (of coal) that still dominate long-abandoned waterfronts. And they intend to replace them with offices, retail shops, housing, recreation, and entertainment venues more suited to a modern economy.

East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick, succinctly summed up the sea change sweeping across the Great Lakes Basin: “At one time, we considered Lake Michigan our back door,” Mayor Pastrick told The Northwest Indiana Times on October 29, 2003. “Today we consider it our front door.”

Driving the basin-wide push are economists’ predictions that those places with the best quality of life will prosper in the global, 21st-century marketplace. No place in the world can offer a water experience like the Great Lakes, so a growing number of local leaders are convinced that an appealing waterfront will lure visitors, workers, families, and new businesses to their towns.

“We are going through a major transformation,” said David Ullrich, director of the Great Lakes Cities Initiative. “You can go from Rochester to Buffalo to Erie and Cleveland and Toledo and Detroit, Chicago, Gary, Milwaukee, Duluth and there are really billions of dollars worth of waterfront assets that are ready for redevelopment.”

Goin’ Mobile
The back-to-the-waterfront movement is history repeating itself. It was, after all, lakeshores and riverbanks that spawned the Great Lakes’ storied American cities in the first place: The Frontier Days, the Lumber Era, the Industrial Revolution. Each marked an evolution of the Great Lakes society and depended heavily on safe harbors, broad rivers, and plenty of water.

The Digital Age will be no different. Information is today’s chief raw material, just as beaver pelts, timber, and copper drove past economic eras. But there is a critical difference: Information is completely mobile. So the new era measures a region’s competitive advantage by its ability to attract talented workers, generate innovative ideas and creative services, and export them worldwide.

“Jobs are not so much tied to ports and minerals and transportation systems, but rather to intellectual work, which can take place anywhere,” said Bill Testa, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “More than ever, people want to live and work near the water. Work location has increasingly become more footloose and fancy-free. Jobs follow people. And people go where life is good.”

That is why citizens, civic leaders, philanthropists, and industry leaders throughout the basin are racing to make their waterways more accessible and inviting.

Cleveland and Gary: Making Waves
“We look at Lake Erie as an opportunity,” Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell said at a May 5, 2004 Great Lakes conference. “If you want a glimpse of Cleveland’s historic relationship to the lake, go to the Holiday Inn Lakeside. You will see that the parked cars have a lovely view of the lake. The parking garage faces the lake! This gives you a clue of where we were about 35 years ago. But now we have turned our eyes to the lakefront.”

Today, Cleveland is finalizing a historic 50-year strategic plan to transform eight miles and 3,000 acres of isolated, gritty lakefront into a hub of recreational, residential, and commercial activity. Highlights include a proposed $50 million transformation of the Shoreway expressway into a slower, pedestrian-friendly boulevard; construction of 10,000 units of new residential housing; and $360 million in port improvements.

“The lakefront is not just a place to go and look,” Mayor Campbell said. “It’s also a place to work. Maritime activity supports about 10,000 jobs in Cleveland.”

A similarly ambitious plan is taking shape at the south end of Lake Michigan. Five communities, including Gary, Ind., are developing the Marquette Greenway Plan. The greenway would consolidate a shrinking steel industrial base; develop condos, restaurants, and lakeside shops; and convert 75 percent of the 45-mile shoreline to public use.

“Gary is in dire need of attracting people, new businesses, and growing the economy,” said Dorreen Carey, environmental coordinator for Gary’s Department of Environmental Affairs. “We used to be a big, muscle-bound steel town. But things have changed. And things that once were overlooked, like Lake Michigan, are now gaining new importance.”

“If we do the lakeshore right, people will be begging us to develop next to it,” added U.S. Representative Peter Visclosky, a strong supporter of the Marquette Greenway Plan.

Motor City: Rollin’ on the River
A similar downtown turnaround is unfolding in Detroit, where public and private investments along the Detroit River reached $250 million as of March 2005. Projects include a $25 million riverside plaza and promenade addition to General Motors World Headquarters, and the $5.8 million Tricentennial State Park, Michigan’s first urban state park. The non-profit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy was established in 2003 to construct and maintain a five-mile-long, $110 million public river walk that will ramble from the Ambassador Bridge to the Belle Isle Bridge.

The conservancy’s president, Faye Alexander Nelson, said the project would establish a sense of place for residents and visitors and help spur the rejuvenation of the metropolitan area.

“We believe that the redevelopment of the waterfront will stimulate the investment of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars into this community,” the Detroit native said. “To be able to market a beautiful waterfront really adds value to your area.”

Indeed, marketers are already making fresh waves. A new “Michigan’s Beachtowns” campaign hopes to lure visitors to Lake Michigan shoreline destinations such as Ludington, Silver Lake, and St. Joseph. A “Michigan’s West Coast” promotional campaign hopes to brand the Muskegon-Holland-Grand Rapids triangle as a unique place to live, work, and play. And some Wisconsinites want to replace their “The Dairy State” motto with the more urbane “America’s Third Coast.”

The race to reinvent the Rustbelt is in high gear. And it begins at the water’s edge.

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute's Great Lakes Project; he can be reached at aguy@mlui.org. This article is taken from the Institute's recently released, in-depth special report, Water Works: Growing Michigan's Great Lakes Opportunities.

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