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Faye Nelson ’75, ’80, shares the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s bold vision

L to R: Business senior Kelly Kowalski, Faye Nelson, Business senior Joel Donlon and Professor Mike Whitty.

Imagine you are walking in downtown Detroit on a brilliant sunny day. The Detroit River is to your right, shimmering in the bright light. To your left—a 31-acre tree-lined park with a fishing pond. Ahead of you, a harbor filled with boats.

If the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s vision for Detroit comes to pass, this scene will soon become reality. As president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Nelson is leading the way to a better future for Detroit and the residents of the Metropolitan area. At the invitation of UDM’s Institute for Building Sustainable Communities, Nelson recently visited the McNichols Campus to detail the Conservancy’s ambitious plans for the Riverfront area.

The Conservancy’s complete vision includes essentially the entire Detroit Riverfront, from MacArthur Bridge on Belle Isle to just past the Ambassador Bridge, a total of five miles. The plan includes a Riverwalk, bike path, green space for pedestrian access to the River, a harbor and a dock. One of the major components, the Riverwalk will be an average of 62 feet wide for the majority of its span, allowing plenty of space for both pedestrians and cyclists. Where space along the River is at a premium, the Riverwalk will actually be over the river in the form of a supported dock. In some instances, the plan dictates a “soft shore” approach, one that allows “access to the River for fishing, or just enjoying the river up close,” Nelson says.

Nelson says the Riverfront improvements should be placed in the context of a larger trend: “We are definitely in the midst of transforming the entire city of Detroit, and it is exciting to see so much under way.”

As an example, she cites the fact that the City of Detroit is committed to using a portion of the former Uniroyal site for the development of a new, more natural river edge to support development closer to Jefferson. The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation just announced that a developer has been selected for that site, yet another signal of progress toward the ultimate goal.

A native Detroiter, Nelson earned a B.A. in Political Science from Mercy College of Detroit in 1975 and a J.D. from the University of Detroit School of Law in 1980. She was appointed president and CEO of the Conservancy in September 2003. Prior to that, she was vice president of Governmental Affairs for Wayne State University, where she led the development of the Wayne State University research and technology park. From 1981 to 1996, Nelson was senior corporate attorney and then director of Government Affairs for Kmart Corporation. She attended the Harvard Institute for Higher Education Management Program.

In addition, Nelson serves on the boards of directors for Compuware Corporation, the National Conference for Community and Justice, Digital Detroit, Michigan Economic Growth Authority, and has many other community affiliations. She is a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan, Leadership Detroit XIII, the Detroit Athletic Club and the Economic Club of Detroit, and a life member of the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference.

Says Nelson, “Being involved in the Riverwalk project has already been a powerful experience for all of us. It is an incredible vision, and I am glad to report that we are moving very quickly toward reality.”

To learn more about the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy or get updates on the Riverwalk project, visit