Friday Feature: Applying the Full Nelson to Detroit's Riverfront


By Brian Cox
The Legal News

On a sunny Thursday afternoon in early spring, Rivard Plaza on Detroit’s Riverfront hums with human activity: couples holding hands, families corralling kids, co-workers eating lunch; walkers, runners, bikers; old, young, black, white. The river slaps against its banks. Fishing boats bob past. Swooping gulls cry.

As if the leisurely bustle is sunshine, Faye Alexander Nelson stands in the plaza center near the Cullen Family Carousel and soaks it all in.

“This is what it’s all about,” she says, unable to contain a wide smile.

It’s a well-earned expression of satisfaction and achievement that has been years in the making.

As president and CEO of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy since its inception in 2003, Nelson has led an inspired and ambitious campaign to transform a ribbon of the city’s waterfront from a derelict urban edge scarred with cement silos, trash-strewn parking lots and abandoned warehouses into a thriving symbol of a battered city’s hope and potential.

Most of the East Riverfront development, a 3.5-mile promenade from Joe Louis Arena to Gabriel Richard Park just east of the Belle Isle Bridge, opened in June 2007 after five years of intense and extensive planning, fund-raising, negotiating, and construction.

Where once there was only rot and ruin, there are now parks, plazas, and pavilions, benches, brick paths, fountains and wetlands, festivals and concerts.

“We have made huge progress in the reclamation of our riverfront,” says Nelson of the first phase of the project. “It’s nothing short of a miracle.”

A revitalized riverfront had been the subject of decades of discussion in Detroit but for a variety of reasons — politics, funding, funding, politics — no steps beyond study after shelved study were taken to turn a desired outcome into a reality.

Nelson and the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy broke the cycle of inertia.

It was a herculean task to overcome daunting challenges such as resolving complex environmental issues, navigating multiple property rights, and raising millions of dollars, but Nelson credits the Conservancy’s unprecedented success  to a strong public/private partnership that connects foundations, corporations, individuals, river front property owners, governments at all levels and the community at large to further the realization of a long-held vision.

“This is a project that is so amazing because it demonstrates what can be accomplished when we work together,” she says, characterizing the developed riverwalk as a textbook example of how Detroit can reshape and remake its identity.

“A reclaimed riverfront is a major stake in the ground for the revitalization of our community,” she says.

A native Detroiter, Nelson evokes brisk efficiency and confidence and displays a penchant for detail. She brings to the myriad demands of heading up the DRFC the skills she honed as a corporate lawyer.

Prior to being the Conservancy’s first hire in 2003, Nelson, who earned her juris doctorate from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 1980, was senior corporate attorney and then director of Government Affairs for Kmart.

“Being an attorney has been a tremendous asset in the leadership role I play,” says Nelson. “But it’s more than being a lawyer. It’s the legal training and the variety of skills you learn, all of which are transferable. We’re trained to be thinkers, writers, problem solvers, communicators.”

It is not a coincidence, she says, that many successful people have legal backgrounds.

Nelson attended law school after studying political science at Mercy College of Detroit. She always understood she had a lawyer’s mind and held a keen sense of what she knew about herself and what she was good at.

“One of my strongest suits is strategic thinking and problem solving,” she says.

And while she had a lawyer’s mind, she determined she didn’t have as much of a lawyer’s heart because though she enjoyed studying law, she didn’t have the passion for practicing it.

After some 14 years with Kmart, Nelson entered academia, joining Wayne State University as vice president of government affairs and leading the development of the university’s Research and Technology Park, now known as “Tech Town.”

With the creation of Tech Town, Nelson had found a calling, one that drew on every one of her strengths and that offered a component she highly valued:  the chance to contribute to a community to which she was fervently committed.

“Giving back is essentially a part of my DNA,” she says.

She got the opportunity to “give back” to a remarkable degree when in 2002, a blue-ribbon committee was formed to find the right leader for the envisioned Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. It was a task of great consequence and the committee conducted a nationwide search.

They need only have searched less than 10 miles down the road. Nelson was waiting. And ready.

“I was extremely excited and intrigued about the possibilities,” she says. “And it was a wonderful stretch for me professionally.”

She knew instinctively that she would never again be presented with a project of such scope and potential impact on the city’s future.

Despite powerful support from an early triumvirate of supporters made up of the City of Detroit, the Kresge Foundation and General Motors, Nelson and the Conservancy had to overcome doubt and skepticism built up over decades of inaction.

It was difficult the first couple of years trying to convince people there was a reality beyond the rendered drawings, Nelson says. But she persevered.

“You have to have a lot of tenacity,” she says. “You have to believe that even if you don’t have the solution, it can be found.”

Once only a bold idea, the DFRC just recently completed a 5-year strategic plan that supports the organization’s overarching goal to transform the city’s waterfront from the Ambassador Bridge to the Belle Isle Bridge and beyond, a span of 5-1/2 miles.

And while much remains to be done, Nelson says it’s important and inspirational to appreciate what has been accomplished in so short a time.

The mother of four daughters, Nelson says her husband Al Nelson, who also is a lawyer, was central to her successful management of the Conservancy through its infancy.

“You cannot do a job like this unless you have tremendous support,” she says. “I’ve got a cheerleader in my background, and that’s my husband. He’s a great mentor and his support has really allowed me to sink my teeth into the project.”

Her efforts have drawn wide praise and an array of honors, including being named by Corp! Magazine as one of Michigan’s Extraordinary Women Leaders, The Michigan Chronicle as a Woman of Excellence, and Crain’s Detroit Business as one of Metro Detroit’s Most Influential Women Leaders.

Most recently, she was recognized by Time Magazine as a member of its “Committee to Save Detroit.” They called her “The Revitalizer.”

But all the recognition and praise aside, it is from times such as this spring afternoon as she stands in Rivard Plaza and watches Detroiters experience a relationship with their river — only imaginable a decade ago — that Nelson draws the greatest sense of accomplishment and relishes the riverfront’s magnetic appeal.

“There’s almost something magical about water,” she says. “It draws people.”

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of MOTION Magazine.