Big changes are in the works at Belle Isle, Detroi...

Big changes are in the works at Belle Isle, Detroit’s favorite park

From a world-class garden to habitat restoration, millions of dollars are being put into upgrades at the island.

aerial photo of belle isle in detroit, where upgrades are underway

Karis Floyd grew up in Detroit and went to Belle Isle all the time as a kid. But as he got older, he noticed that the island park was showing its age — and lack of investment. 

“A lot of the buildings had no plumbing and a lot of the facilities weren’t working,” he said. “The picnic shelters were in bad shape. The grass wasn’t mowed, there was trash all over the place, there were rotting trees everywhere. Porta Johns were being used because the restrooms weren’t open. The fountain wasn’t working. 

“It got a lot of usage, but the island was in poor shape.”

Now, as manager of Belle Isle Park for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Floyd is helping bring the island back to full capacity as part of a wide-ranging capital improvement program. 

Other partners, like the Belle Isle Conservancy and the Detroit Historical Society, have upgraded their facilities on the island, too. And a new garden from a famed landscape architect is set to bloom for the first time this spring. 

“Belle Isle has more projects going on than any other state park in Michigan,” Floyd said. “It’s really done a 360 from what it was to what it is now.”

How state management stabilized Belle Isle

Belle Isle became a state park in 2014 after the Michigan Emergency Loan Board approved a 30-year lease as part of the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. That move certainly hasn’t been without its detractors. Some feel that state police that now patrol the island create an unwelcoming atmosphere.

But the city simply wasn’t able to properly maintain the sprawling, 982-acre park — the largest city-owned island park in the United States. Michele Hodges, executive director of the Belle Isle Conservancy, estimated that the island had about $300 million in deferred maintenance. 

“It’s not that the city wasn’t investing, there were just limited resources,” she said. “With the state park status, it opened up many more sources of potential funding.”

Since the DNR began managing Belle Isle, it’s invested around $50 million in various projects. Park attendance steadily increased through 2019. And the transfer has saved the city millions of dollars per year in operational costs, which it can then invest into other city parks. 

This year, the conservancy will also help facilitate a master planning process for Belle Isle, led by the DNR, and the first for the island since the 1980s. It’s looking to issue a request for proposals for planning consultants in the first quarter of the year. 

Mobility will be a major focus of the new master plan. Hodges also said it’s imperative to make the island a more welcoming place for residents. “What marks this moment is going to be the community and the role Belle Isle plays in helping the community to flourish.”

Planting the Oudolf Garden, October 2020. Credit: Ryan Southen Photography via Oudolf Garden Detroit

Cultivating a new signature site  

The flashiest of all the projects underway at Belle Isle is a garden. 

Renowned Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, who created the High Line in New York City and the Lurie Garden at Chicago’s Millennium Park, visited Detroit in 2017 after an invitation from the Garden Club of Michigan. Soon after, he began designing a garden for Belle Isle. 

Situated next to the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon, the 2.5-acre garden will feature 26,000 total plants out of 110 varieties. Construction began in 2019 and planting was completed last year. The Oudolf garden is to be unveiled this summer. 

The garden was designed with both aesthetics and sustainability in mind. 

“Piet’s all about structure,” said Duncan Campbell, a grounds crew member for Oudolf Garden Detroit. “The juxtaposition of the plant varieties coexist and play well with each other. He’s also very mindful of which plants best fit all four seasons. You mow the garden at the end of February, then leave it in place for the nutrients to grow back up. No fertilizer — just water and sunshine, plus its own organic material. It makes it very sustainable.”

Oudolf Garden Detroit, the all-volunteer organization that manages the garden, also had financial sustainability in mind. Of the $4.6 million it raised — from sources like the Erb Family Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation and hundreds of individual donors — $2.4 million will go towards an endowment for perpetual care of the garden. 

The world-class stature of the designer and garden could bring in additional interest in the park as well. “I see it as a halo project,” Campbell said. “Piet is the top garden designer in the world. His name recognition will bring greater focus to things that still need attention, like the carillon and the Remick bandshell.”

Planting the Oudolf Garden, October 2020. Credit: Ryan Southen Photography via Oudolf Garden Detroit

Upgrading historic structures

Other notable institutions on the island, especially those in the Oudolf Garden’s halo, have been investing in their structures.

The DNR spent $2.5 million on the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory to replace the iconic steel trusses that support the building’s dome. 

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum completed $1.5 million in improvements over the summer, building out an extended walkway and stabilizing the cove to allow for kayak launches. 

“It was hardly done when people started using the cove,” said Joel Stone, senior curator at the Detroit Historical Society, which runs the Dossin. The new landscaping and driveway “creates a whole different feel for the front of the building,” he added. 

Over time, the museum plans to make a total of $4.9 million in upgrades.

The Albert Kahn-designed Belle Isle Aquarium, which was the oldest continuously operated aquarium in the country, closed in 2005. The Belle Isle Conservancy reopened the aquarium in 2012 and manages its operations. In recent years they have replaced the facility’s plumbing and electrical and increased its tank capacity to almost 100%. They’re also embarking on an estimated two-year process towards accreditation. 

“Our main objective has been to get to full capacity,” said Summer Ritner, director of the Belle Isle Aquarium. “But our ultimate goal is to get accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.”

Preserving the island’s natural and recreational spaces

All of these facilities are clustered in a kind of campus on the south and west side of Belle Isle. But what about the vast majority of the park, where people mostly hike, swim and play sports? 

While most of the DNR’s investments have gone towards infrastructure, a substantial portion is also being spent on shoring up foundational elements, like upgrading pathways and improving the island’s natural health. 

The Michigan Department of Transportation installed a bike and pedestrian lane to Central Avenue, which cuts through the center of the park, and the DNR is adding several miles of both primitive and paved trails. Later this year, it will put out a RFP to consultants for the creation of a traffic circulation plan. 

It’s also just begun a project, funded with a $3.7 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to restore the hydrology of the island’s flatwoods. 

“The eastern half of the island is essentially a 200-acre wet forest that’s very susceptible to any change in water flow,” said Amanda Treadwell, an urban field planner with the DNR. “There has been significant development there over the last 100 years that has impacted the island’s hydrology. It’s a very unique ecosystem to this region and worth protecting.”

In recent years, flooding caused by climate change has affected the health of the flatwoods. “The inundation of water means the forest hasn’t gone through the natural hydrologic cycles of wet-dry,” Treadwell said.

A cofferdam was installed last summer, and will be installed again this summer, to maintain water levels and prevent flooding. The $6.5 million restoration of Lake Okonoka, which has been underway for several years, will also help with the record high water levels. (This project may also have contributed to flooding in the short term. Critics say that when the lagoon on the eastern side of Belle Isle was opened to the Detroit River, water flowed in, forcing the closure of roads and sections of the island.)

Belle Isle has long been a favorite destination for Detroiters — but its untended spaces have also been ripe for new investment and new ideas. With the Oudolf Garden ready to bloom this year, and a new master plan process about to begin, it seems it’s finally getting a bit of both.

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.