John Gallagher Detroit Free Press
Published 7:11 AM EDT May 4, 2019
Blame it on heavy rains, rising lake levels, the Grand Prix setup, or major construction projects but Detroit’s Belle Isle Park is a mess right now.
The good news is that most of the problems should clear up in time for another season of picnics, family reunions, biking, jogging, and sunset watching. And the long-term outlook is for a more ecologically friendly environment for wildlife, plant life and human visitors alike.
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But there are plenty of short-term issues on Belle Isle just now:
Heavy rains have left standing water on grassy areas throughout the island. Much of the park will be unusable until things dry out in coming days or weeks.
“Basically we have a lot of pumps on the island,” said Karis Floyd, the park supervisor with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “We open those up to try to pump the water down. But as you know, not only the Detroit River but several lakes around the state of Michigan are flooding over due to the additional rain. Hopefully, we’ll get a few additional days with no rain. We can continue to pump it down and just wait for it to dry out.”
2. It’s Grand Prix time
The annual Detroit Grand Prix is setting up for the three-day event beginning May 31. As many fans of the island have complained over the years, the Grand Prix setup and teardown restricts traffic in various ways until the barriers and obstacles are finally removed in the weeks following the race.
3. Electric cable project
DTE Energy is taking over the electrical service to the island from the city’s public lighting department. To do that, DTE is laying new cables on the island. That has chewed up grassy areas along the central road through the island but should be finished soon.
4. Perimeter road changes; fish habitat plan
In a major construction project, crews are building a new road bridge along the perimeter road known as The Strand on the east end of the island facing Canada.
There, crews opened up the shoreline to connect the island’s Lake Okonoka to the Detroit River as part of fish habitat restoration work. Building the bridge over the opening should be done by mid-August, said Amanda Treadwell of the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Until then, the perimeter road will be closed through that stretch, but visitors should be able to use a shortcut that runs between the forest on the island and the perimeter road farther along.
5. Road resurfacing
In July, the Michigan Department of Transportation is scheduled to resurface part of the central roadway through the woods. That stretch has been notorious for big, deep potholes. The resurfacing should take about two weeks and close that central roadway through the woods for that time.
A work in progress
Belle Isle has always been a work in progress. When French settlers first reached the island in the early 1700s, it measured only about three-fourths its current size of 982 acres — the largest city-owned island park in the United States. Landfill expanded the island to its current configuration around 1940.
Over the decades, the island evolved from mostly forest and marsh to a venue with multiple recreational and cultural offerings. But as the City of Detroit’s financial abilities deteriorated in the years leading up to the municipal bankruptcy in 2013, maintenance lagged at Belle Isle and other cities parks.
During that period of financial difficulty, the historic Aquarium on Belle Isle had closed, restrooms were padlocked, the canoe rental had long shuttered, and there were multiple other problems.
Restoring the glory
Taken all together, the various repair work and upgrades now underway are part of a plan to restore the once-dilapidated park to glory following the takeover by DNR on a 30-year lease from the city that began in 2013.
Since then, DNR, the Friends of the Detroit River, the Belle Isle Conservancy, the Army Corps of Engineers and other players have worked on multiple renovation projects.
The island’s Blue Heron Lagoon on the eastern end of the island, formerly a closed body of water, has been opened to the Detroit River as part of a fish habitat improvement project. Blue Heron Lagoon has, in turn, been connected to Lake Okonoka, which has also been opened to the river.
Thanks to donations and volunteers, the Aquarium has reopened and continues to expand its exhibits. The historic Conservancy, which, like the Aquarium, was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn, is also undergoing restoration work today.
DNR has also welcomed recreational offerings, including kayak rentals, to the island. And there are many more projects in planning to further restore the island.
So perhaps some short-term inconvenience is worth it for some long-term gain. At any rate, fans of Belle Isle are not likely to let a little rain dampen their enjoyment of a Detroit jewel.
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or [email protected].Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.
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