Transforming Detroit’s Riverfront:
How Coleman Young transformed Detroit’s Riverfront,
starting with Chene Park


Opinion Article by Rainy Hamilton, FAIA

As published in the Detroit Free Press, February 27, 2024


As we celebrate the completion of the Riverwalk to include the link along the former Uniroyal site adjacent to the Belle Isle Bridge, it is appropriate and fitting to acknowledge the roots of this wonderful people-space along the Detroit River.

In large part, the Riverwalk has been completed due to the public-private partnership established by the Riverfront Conservancy, and General Motors’ gracious gift of Matt Cullen’s time and leadership to involve the private sector, as well as fulltime oversight by Karen Slaughter-DuPerry, a GM executive on loan to the conservancy. Detroit owes never-ending gratitude to these champions for bringing our riverfront to life with public access for all.

But we must also acknowledge the work of Detroit’s former mayor, the honorable Coleman Alexander Young.

Dozens of pedestrians walk during the Uniroyal Promenade ribbon-cutting ceremony on Detroit’s Riverwalk in Detroit on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. The new Uniroyal Promenade completes the 3.5 mile-long Riverwalk and provides access to Belle Isle.

Coleman Young had a vision

Coleman Young first put forth the vision to transform our once-industrial riverfront into a wonderful asset for the residents of the city of Detroit. The simple premise of allowing and promoting public access to the river’s edge to stimulate investment and development was sound — as evidenced by the completion of the Riverwalk today.

During Coleman Young’s tenure as mayor, five terms in all, he tasked his Recreation Department, led by Leon Atchison, later an executive at Michigan Consolidate Gas, to create a plan to transform the industrial, inaccessible riverfront into a place the public could access.

The vision for this plan: Public access would spark investment in the redevelopment of large parcels of privately held property. Atchison was given free rein by Young to work with the state and federal Governments to obtain grants required to develop Chene, St. Aubin and Mt. Elliott parks. This effort also included instituting programming for the parks, and these seeds were the basis for the Linked Riverfront Parks Project. The relationship between Mayor Young and then-Gov. William Milliken proved highly fruitful and beneficial to the city in setting the stage for implementation.

Atchison, working with deputy director Daniel Krichbaum, head recreation planner Harriet Saperstein and Chief of Landscape Design Ted Viall, sought out and commissioned a relatively new start-up design firm, Schervish Vogel Merz to develop the plan. SVM leaders David Schervish, Stephen Vogel, and Charles Merz, worked closely with city leaders and local stakeholders to create the Linked Parks Project. Landscape architects Craig Bristow and Richard Hautau oversaw the construction of Chene Park.

Detroit Mayor Coleman Young served five terms as mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1994. In this 1989 photo, he poses for atop the Riverfront Apartments overlooking downtown Detroit.

The Linked Parks Project prescribed a plan to develop the river’s edge from the Belle Isle Bridge to the Renaissance Center, allowing public access where possible. There were obstacles. Some industrial businesses, like Medusa and Huron Cement Companies and Kent Moore Stamping and Fabricating, could not be removed or relocated economically. The plan showed linkages around those sites.

The parks project was preceded by the “The Riverfront Alternatives 14 Mile Border to Border Plan,” spearheaded by Harriet Saperstein and the Recreation Department. The reference to a “Bridge to Bridge Plan” was made in Coleman Young’s “Moving Detroit Forward Plan,” presented to then-President Jimmy Carter in the mid-1970s.


It started with Chene Park

The first major City of Detroit investment was the creation of Chene Park, now the Aretha Franklin Park and Amphitheatre, built on city-owned property purchased from the Nicholson Docking Company. The funding for this acquisition, and construction of this park, as well as the St. Aubin and Mt. Elliott Parks, was the result of the city working with the State of Michigan and federal government, facilitated by Milliken and late U.S. Rep. John Dingell.

The first phase included creation of a small grassy amphitheater hill, built primarily from the excavation of the pond surrounding the hill. Once dried, the fill was sculpted into the small hill facing the river and 10-foot berms to screen cement company activity on the east and west sides of the new park.

The shoreline was stabilized with large chunks of broken concrete found during the pond excavation, and by construction of a steel sheet pile seawall that supported a round stage and promenade jutting partially into the river. The first phase allowed public access to the riverfront, passive viewing for ships and informal performances such as mime theatre.

Chene Park was an instant success. Performances occurred weekly, or more frequently, with growing popularity. With success in hand, Young called for two expansions of Chene Park.

I remember the mayor meeting with Schervish, Leon Atchison, Leonard Leone, then Chair of Wayne State University’s Theatre Department, then-Detroit Economic Development Director Emmett Moten, Tom Vigliotti, President of Vigliotti Realty Company at the Manoogian Mansion about the removal of the cement companies and new development of the riverfront, partially based on the success of Chene Park.

To everyone’s surprise, the mayor turned the conversation back to Chene Park, directing the design team to increase the seating capacity of the amphitheater hill. Mayor Young did not want residents of the city of Detroit to have to travel to Pine Knob to see outdoor music concerts. Schervish expressed concern that adding more fill material to the hill might cause an engineering imbalance that could push the stage into the river, a concern Young did not embrace. Young said to Schervish, in his usual direct, colorful and often shocking way, “Just make the hill bigger.”

This meeting was a classic Mayor Young moment — one that I remember fondly.


Pioneering techniques

On two occasions, SVM utilized various site engineering techniques to increase the height of the hill to 40 feet to increase the seating capacity to over 7,000 to host local events and national performances.

Fast forward to today: The project was recently awarded the American Institute of Architects-Michigan Chapter’s Twenty-Five Year Award, bestowed upon projects that maintain their original design integrity, and continue to be used for the original purpose 25 years after completion. Chene Park was designated a historic site in 2018, and renamed the Aretha Park Amphitheatre in 2019.


Building on Chene Park’s success

The second and third parks designed by SVM under Coleman Young’s administration included St. Aubin Park and Marina — now Milliken State Park — and Mt. Elliot Park. The earth excavated for the new marina was used to both build the second-phase hill in Chene Park and for the initial earth sculpting and contouring of Mt. Elliot. This excavation in Detroit is remarkable when measured against the large boating population and the number of supporting marinas, most outside of Detroit.

This public marina was commissioned to cater to the increasing number of boaters on the Great Lakes, allowing them the opportunity to dock and explore Detroit’s east riverfront, and to create much-needed access from the river to downtown.

Mt. Elliott Park was envisioned as an interpretive park, allowing access to the history of the former Coast Guard building and shipping and trade on the Great Lakes. Today, it’s also a gateway to the newly completed Riverwalk link across the front of the Uniroyal site to the Belle Isle Bridge.

These three parks have been the engines that pushed forward to the connecting linkages that now make up the Riverwalk.

The authors of the Linked Parks Project include Schervish, Vogel and Merz, all graduates of the University of Detroit School of Architecture (now the University of Detroit Mercy). I worked on the plan alongside SVM draftees, Ken Berendt and Randall A. Machelski, developing the research, analysis, design and phasing plan.

All of the drawings were made by hand. Many of the maps and planning documents reached 10 feet in length.


‘Make no little plans’

The group that laid the foundation for the Riverwalk was remarkable. Krichbaum, an ordained United Methodist minister, was president of a group that later became the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, and served as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s chief operation officer and as the director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Harriet Saperstein, served with the League of Women Voters, various other charitable and volunteer organizations and has lived in the city for over 50 years, facing the challenges of the riots in 1967 and was the lead planner for the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department.

The accomplishments of Leon Atchison, director of the Parks and Recreation Department during the Young Administration, in education, business and civic leadership are noteworthy during a time when African Americans were blocked from higher positions in civil and business affairs. He served on the Wayne State University Board of Governors. Recognition of his contributions include the university’s honors dormitory, named Leon H. Atchison Hall.

Leon Atchison in shown in his office at the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company after his service in the Coleman Young administration.

The motto inscribed on the walls of SVM’s offices were penned for an address to the Chicago Economic Club in 1912 by Daniel Hudson Burnham, the architect of Chicago’s Lakefront Park System. I subscribe to this motto and press on to rebuilding the great City of Detroit:

“Make No Little Plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.  Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency…”

As founder and president of Hamilton Anderson, we continue to work to reimagine Detroit and design urban projects. We take pleasure in seeing the sound planning and design vision that was put forth come to life. We also look forward to the future impact the Linked Parks Project is having on the development of the entire Detroit riverfront from border to border of the greater downtown area. We continue our 30-year quest to improve the quality of the built environment in Detroit, and celebrate our home office in Paradise Valley.


Rainy Hamilton is principal-in-charge and president of HamiltonAnderson Architects. Submit a letter to the editor at