When RuShann Long was growing up in Detroit's Midwest neighborhood almost 60 years ago, she remembers walking the Conrail line that ran through the community to reach shopping districts to the north. Today, that line is abandoned and Long's neighborhood, once home to what she describes a "close-knit," "mixed-income" community, is heavily affected by blight.
But Long sees great promise in an ambitious effort that will see eight miles of the Conrail line repurposed as part of the Joe Louis Greenway, a planned 32-mile non-motorized loop through the city.
"My hope is that it will give people hope again," she says. "... We have to be moving with the future. We can't stay stuck where we are, because this is not how we should be living. Our children and our grandchildren need to live in an environment that's pleasant."
Work on the former Conrail property is set to begin this spring, the first dedicated construction on a route that will connect existing and planned trails throughout Detroit. That development will mark the culmination of over a decade of planning, with the former rail line serving as the linchpin that will now enable completion of the greenway over the next 10 to 15 years.
A key piece
A 2002 report funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM) first identified the Conrail property as a potential site for a future trail, but it wasn't until 2007 that Detroit city employee and trail enthusiast Jim Edwards first envisioned it as part of a larger greenway. Edwards came up with the idea of a large loop around the city that would connect the Conrail line to the Dequindre Cut, a two-mile greenway opened in 2009 on the opposite side of downtown Detroit.
Edwards worked closely with Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, to validate his route, which started as a simple line drawn on an existing map. The project was initially known as the Inner Circle Greenway, and the Detroit Greenways Coalition published an early proposed route for it in 2008.
Future May Creek Greenway
Edwards and Scott secured planning funds for the project from CFSEM and the Kresge Foundation, but the construction of the greenway was dependent on the city purchasing the Conrail property, a multi-million-dollar proposition. So the Detroit Greenways Coalition applied for a grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF), which uses the proceeds from Michigan oil, gas, and mineral lease and royalty payments to acquire and develop public recreational lands. In 2014 MNRTF awarded the city a $3.4 million grant to acquire the Conrail property, representing roughly 75% of the purchase price, with the Michigan Department of Transportation's Transportation Alternatives Program kicking in the remaining $1.1 million.
Scott says there's "no way" the acquisition could have happened without MNRTF.
"Detroit was on the verge of bankruptcy," he says. "There's not a chance."
The acquisition process was lengthy, finally wrapping up in April 2019 (the city announced the greenway's new name in October 2017). But the city has moved full steam ahead with the project since then.
"That key northwestern portion really unlocked our potential to say, 'Okay, we know we can do this now. We have the land control in place and we can start planning the entire route,'" says Meagan Elliott, Detroit's chief parks planner.
Greenway Heritage Conservancy, Kathy Green, Lamanda Matthews, Rushann Long, Sheri Burton
In January 2019, when it became clear that the acquisition process was drawing to a close, Elliott and other city staff began working on a framework plan for the greenway. The framework, which Elliott expects to be released in mid-November, will solidify a final route for the greenway. The route has fluctuated slightly over the years, but it is expected to include portions of existing and planned trails including not only the Dequindre Cut but also the Iron Belle Trail, May Creek Greenway, and Jos Campau Greenway.
Scott says the greenway will "connect up everything" in Detroit's trail system, including a link to the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.
"I think it's going to be of international importance when it's completed," he says.
Healing urban trauma
The framework plan will also include detailed plans on how the greenway will interact with each neighborhood it passes through. All those plans will be heavily informed by a robust community engagement process. Elliott says the concept of healing urban trauma has been a consistent theme in her conversations with residents.
Ashia Phillips at FB4K.
"A greenway could be this network that unifies the city in the way that urban renewal and building highways definitely did not," she says. "That was something that I think was really fascinating as a listener from the onset, to think about what are ways that we could put that into action and really give it teeth. We could come out and say we're a project that's going to be healing, but what does that really mean?"
The answers Elliott and other city staff have identified to that question are multifaceted. One key objective is maintaining affordable housing along the route. Elliott says the city has looked to Atlanta's BeltLine trail as a lesson in both the stumbles and the successes that are possible in achieving that goal. Detroit's housing and revitalization department is currently working with Detroit Economic Growth Corporation staff to establish a housing strategy for the framework plan.
But that process of centering healing also involves many other smaller decisions to ensure that residents' needs are respected in each neighborhood the greenway passes through. Long credits the city with not designing the greenway in a vacuum, but "bringing it out to all the communities" who will be affected.
Jos Campau Greenway at East Lafayette.
The city formed the Joe Louis Greenway Advisory Council, comprised of five residents from each of the city council districts the greenway will pass through (including Long), and has also worked directly with block clubs and other neighborhood groups to solicit input from residents. For instance, in the Midwest neighborhood, the city is working to secure plots of land along the greenway route to fulfill residents' wish for community gardens along the route.
"We're trying to ensure that the people who have been here and stayed here don't get pushed out, and that they have a voice in what's happening," Long says.
Scott says he's encouraged residents to see the project as "an opportunity to get other things done that are a bigger priority for them."
"I've talked to residents whose biggest concern is the removal of blight and dumping. I said, 'Well, let's wrap that into this discussion, because you don't want a greenway going through an area that looks blighted,'" he says. "I've had people talk about wanting to do economic development in a certain location that just so happens to be along the greenway. I said, 'Well, tie the two together. Can the greenway investment help spur economic development to meet your vision?'"
As a result of the intensive community engagement process, enthusiasm for the greenway project is high. Joe Louis Greenway Advisory Council member Ashia Phillips has been leading group bike rides in Detroit since 2006, and she officially co-founded the D. Town Riders bicycle club in 2013. The club has grown steadily over the years to include over 1,000 regular riders, but she says she still yearns to have more opportunities to ride comfortably without interference from auto traffic.
Future May Creek Greenway
"I love the greenway," Phillips says. "I just think it's going to be positive for the city. I'm looking forward to it."
Elliott says she's "giddy" about the project, pointing out that 46,000 Detroiters currently don't have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their home.
"This is going to be a new way to connect them and help bring them down to the riverfront," she says. "... It's the kind of catalytic project that has every possible avenue of import, and it's just about holding all of those pieces together and making it happen the right way. I'm really excited about it."
“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.
All photos by Doug Coombe.