Environment Picture

An eternal optimist and unyielding advocate, Faye Alexander Nelson is turning Detroit’s riverfront from blight to spectacular blessing

The waste bin of history is brimming with grand ideas for revitalizing Detroit that died without a whimper. 

And then there’s the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy and its RiverWalk project, what will ultimately be a 5.5-mile ribbon of hope that transformed a desolate stretch of Detroit River frontage into a beacon of big city vibrancy. The Walk (three miles developed to date) is a spotless stretch of parks, plazas, pavilions, greenways and social interaction. It is proof of the possibilities when tireless advocates, money, and the grit and vision of regional leadership coalesce around a grand idea to re-energize a key part of the city. 

No one embodies the spirit of the RiverWalk more than Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. Faye is the 2010 recipient of the Michigan Environmental Council’s Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award

In retrospect, it seemed fated that Nelson would lead the project. 

In 2003, high-powered civic and public leaders had identified funding and broad-based support to launch a grand RiverWalk vision. But they needed a leader. The leader had to work magic, to be a visionary, a tireless optimist with the skills to hold together the unwieldy and diverse coalition of partners and advocates necessary to turn blight into beauty. After months scouring the nation, they chose a hometown woman with a smile as big as her dreams. 

“It was an amazing nationwide search, and here I am just 10 miles away,” said Nelson, who lives in Troy and grew up in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood. She was one of five children of a Chrysler assembly line worker and a stay-at-home mom. “I’m a hometown girl. We always had that stamp of ‘D’ and the pride you had being from Detroit. Automobile capital of the world.” 

The task was enormous. The long-neglected riverfront was a foreboding hash of overgrown lots, abandoned industrial structures, cement silos, contaminated soil and crumbling buildings. In seven years, under Nelson’s unflagging leadership, the riverfront is being reborn as a bike- and pedestrian-friendly work of art. 

A longshot 
Matt Cullen, chairman of the conservancy’s board, said Nelson was a longshot when the search process began. 

“You’re looking at people who’ve led $5 million projects and have development experience, and she didn’t have any of that. But we were viewing it purely as a real estate development and…she saw it more as a community project. She caused us to realize what the real priority was.” 

Cullen said they made the right choice. The tangible evidence backs that up. 

Currently stretching from Joe Louis Arena east to Mt. Elliot, with another developed section east of the Belle Isle Bridge, the RiverWalk is a magnet for people from all walks of life. Detroiters. Downtown workers. Visitors. Tourists. Within two years, the entire 3.5 miles—representing the first phase of the 5.5 mile project—is anticipated to be completed. 

Impeccably maintained gardens, trees, benches and paths wind along the river as freighters and fishing boats pass a stone’s throw away. The new Milliken State Park anchors part of the project with wetland walking paths, a boat harbor and replica lighthouse. There is a concession stand, bike rental business, a lovely carousel, fountains, maps of the St. Lawrence Seaway and “you are here” maps, as well as easy access to nearby neighborhoods and eateries. 

There’s a Riverfront Canine Club to walk your dogs, yoga and a “booty boot camp,” and a café featuring Michigan-made products, including Faygo pop, Better Made potato chips and Stroh’s ice cream. A biking and walking path—the Dequindre Cut—veers off the RiverWalk on a 1.3 mile link to the city’s fabled Eastern Market. 

Packing a punch 
The RiverWalk is also the anchor for a growing lineup of high-profile events that pack the city with a vibrancy not seen for years. 

“Detroit’s RiverWalk packs an entertainment punch that draws thousands,” wrote the Detroit News in May. “It is a hot spot for major summer events such as the Red Bull Air Races, the Detroit River Days festival and, of course, the Target Fireworks….” 

Michigan Environmental Council President Chris Kolb said Nelson’s work on the riverfront is an essential component of creating a cleaner, safer, more attractive state. 
“Revitalizing central cities to create walkable, healthy spaces is key to creating vibrant metropolitan areas where people want to live, work and play,” Kolb said. “What Faye and the [Detroit] RiverFront Conservancy have accomplished on the riverfront is a terrific example of how that’s done.” 

Cullen said Nelson’s job requires determination and finesse. “It’s a difficult line to walk when you’re the point person for a public-private partnership with so many players. And it’s something we’ve not excelled at in this region.” But Nelson has pulled it off, bringing in the real estate community, neighborhood groups, multiple layers of government agencies, churches, foundations and many others. 

One sunny day 
One recent sunny spring day, Nelson walked briskly down the RiverWalk. She was not a passive observer. Every passer-by was a target for her huge smile and infectious enthusiasm. 

“Good morning!” she beamed to anyone and everyone. Construction workers. Tourists. Office workers. Cyclists. Children. “What a beautiful day!” People lost in their own thoughts were snapped out of their reverie, startled and uncertain at first, then quickly and involuntarily warming to Nelson’s optimism. 

“See how happy everyone is when they come down and see all this?” she chirped. “It’s just magical.”

Detroiters Audrey Pennington and Karla Williams came to the RiverWalk to get a breather from their daily grind. 

“We’ve had some personal problems,” allowed Pennington. “But you walk here for a while, and you feel so much better. It’s the atmosphere. It’s enjoyable, and it’s good for our health.” 

Its own reward 
Nelson said her work on the RiverWalk has been rewarding in many different ways. Moving from the comfortable boundaries of her previous job to leap into the uncertainty of the fledging riverfront project was a high-risk, high-reward decision. 
After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Mercy College in Detroit, Nelson got her law degree from the University of Detroit Law School. She worked for Kmart as a corporate attorney and most recently as vice president of governmental affairs for Wayne State University. 
In addition, Nelson serves on the boards of directors for Compuware Corporation, University of Detroit Mercy, TechTown and The Parade Company. She is a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan, Leadership Detroit, the Detroit Athletic Club and the Economic Club of Detroit, and is a life member of the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference. 
Cullen said it is Nelson’s connection with people, more so than her myriad of other skills, that has made the difference. 
“There’s a reason the riverfront has not been developed before,” he said. “But she’s been instrumental in making it happen. No other place in the city do you see baby carriages and bikes and people running and enjoying such a space. It’s a unique environment.” ?
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