East Riverfront History

The Detroit River is a significant natural resource and strategically is located in the center of the Great Lakes system.  Just east of what is now Downtown Europeans established of one of the earliest settlements on the North American continent more than 300 years ago.  There are few North American places that have this particular distinction.

In the early 18th century, European settlers designed long linear farm plots - known as 'ribbon farms' on the Riverfront.  Because the River provided transportation for raw materials and heavy industrial goods, it was critical to the 19th century establishment of the industrial revolution in Detroit.  The Detroit River was the center of tremendous commerce, and the East Riverfront District hosted factories, foundries, and warehouses that supported shipbuilders and other enterprises.  The industrial boom lasted about 100 years, through the rise of the automotive industry and World War II.

As railroads, highways, and airlines displaced the River as predominant forms of commercial transportation, the East Riverfront last importance.  During the second half of the 20th century, competition from emerging foreign enterprises put economic pressure on the District and many of those businesses disappeared.

Late in the 20th Century, developers began to see new potential for the East Riverfront and a transformation began.  The old Parke Davis pharmaceutical complex was developed as Stroh’s River Place, a mixed-use development.  Harbortown, another mixed-use project was developed out of vacated industrial property into a primarily residential development, with some retail adjacent to Jefferson Avenue.  Later, the UAW / GM Training Center was constructed.

Another important instant occurred in 1996, when a referendum created an opportunity in the East Riverfront District casino gambling in the City.  The City attempted to purchase large tracts of property with the intention of creating a casino district.  The effort proved to be difficult and was eventually abandoned, but it did put the City in control of significant pieces of property in the west of end of the District, nearest to Downtown.  The City, EDC, GM, and other interested parties started conceptualizing what might be done with these properties.  Through that process the City determined that public access to the waterfront was paramount.  In 2003 the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy (DRFC) was established, generously funded by the Kresge and other important foundations, with land and other contributions by the City, and GM.

The history of the East Riverfront District is long, evolutionary and is still unfolding.  The EDC intends to continue to provide the stewardship that compels or facilitates all the actions, resources, and initiatives that assists with the transformation of the City’s next great urban neighborhood.