Belle Isle closures reignite concerns over Grand Prix and state control

Last weekend, the hottest of the summer so far, Detroit’s Belle Isle Park closed down to car traffic for several hours on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons because it reached capacity. The shutdown followed a Memorial day closure the week before for the same reason.

Representatives for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) say the closures were caused by the need to clear heavy vehicle traffic. 

But many of these closures have coincided with the 59-day setup and tear-down period for the Detroit Grand Prix, which significantly reduces space available for traffic and parking, restricting it to the more heavily used eastern end of the park.

Traffic concerns on the island are not new. “It’s just a weirdly car-heavy space compared to most big, popular parks,” said Patrick Cooper-McCann, assistant professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University. He pointed out that since the park is on an island with limited total capacity, transportation has always been a unique issue. Yet, not only is Belle Isle a car-heavy space on an island, it’s a car-heavy space where large areas are given over to auto racing for much of the spring and early summer. But the closures are new.

“To my knowledge, it’s unprecedented that they constantly have to close the island because of traffic capacity issues,” Cooper-McCann said. He added that the Grand Prix was reducing capacity at the park as well as making “the island less fun to be at.”

Experts and state officials say that changes are needed to reduce traffic on Belle Isle, which could entail more options for car-free transportation to the island and inside the park itself. 

Donna Givens-Davidson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Eastside Community Network and an east-side Detroit resident, feels more input is needed from Detroiters on decision-making over park matters, including how the space is policed, when closures are ordered, and whether or not Belle Isle will continue hosting the car race. The Michigan DNR now makes decisions about the race and park closures after taking control of Belle Isle in 2014 when the city was under emergency management

“I would describe this as institutionalized racism that impacts environmental justice as well as land use justice,” said Givens-Davidson. She argues that primarily white non-residents are now making decisions in the park and that “even people with good intentions undercut democratic principles of representation and accountability.” 

What’s causing the closures

Scott Pratt, chief of southern field operations for the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, says the agency decides to close the island to car traffic when there are backups and if the park is approaching its capacity of 3000 vehicles. The area around Belle Isle’s beach is especially popular and has limited parking, which leads to backups. “For us to get an EMS vehicle or our public safety officers there within a timely manner if anything ever happens, we need to keep those roadways clear,” Pratt said.

He adds that other state parks have also experienced closures recently and that overall park use increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he acknowledges that the Grand Prix is cutting into the island’s capacity.

The closures and the Grand Prix also raise questions about the privatization of the park. Members of the Detroit Yacht Club and their guests can enter the park when it’s otherwise closed to traffic. And the Grand Prix will shut down the island to most non-race-related traffic from June 11th to 13th this year, although the DNR issues 150 passes for visitors to use the park each day.

Givens-Davidson adds that the shutdowns have highlighted the role that State Police play on the island, who first began patrolling the park with the state takeover.  

“People are going to be turned away by usually white state police officers standing at the entrance of a park that Detroiters used to believe was theirs,” she said. Calling it the “most policed state park,” Givens-Davidson noted the heavy presence of law enforcement sends the message to Detroit’s mostly Black population that “this is not their island and they’re not welcome here.” 

Pratt answered some of these criticisms by pointing out that Belle Isle is the only state park with an advisory committee that holds monthly meetings to answer resident concerns about things like policing or the presence of the Grand Prix. 

Yet, Cooper-McCann points out that three of the seven members of the Belle Isle Advisory committee represent interests related to the Grand Prix, including the Penske Corp, which is a primary financial backer of the race. Bud Denker, president of the Penske Corporation and chairman of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, serves on this body. Sommer Woods, director of external relations for the Penske-backed M-1 Rail, is also on the committee.

And Michelle Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy, serves as the commitee’s chairperson. The conservancy hosts the race’s official launch party, which helped the organization raise $1 million in 2018. 

What comes next?

Pratt says that a traffic study is planned by the Michigan Department of Transportation. It will look at things like converting some one-way roads to two-ways and the possibility of adding non-motorized options like a trolley system that could use the Grand Prix’s paddock area near the James Scott Memorial Fountain as a parking lot and pick-up point.

“If the island is going to be as popular as it currently is, or more popular, there have to be alternatives to getting on and off the island and getting around the island besides just people in individual cars,” Cooper-McCann said.

In the past, there was more frequent bus service that made multiple stops on the island, and visitors could access the park by ferry for much of the 20th century. Currently, a bus makes one stop on Belle Isle, roughly every 50 minutes during the day.  

As for the issue of how decisions are made, McCann says that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the City Council influence the Belle Isle Advisory Committee. Bud Denker, for example, was appointed by Mayor Duggan, while council has two appointees, Woods and Brad Dick, director of the city’s General Services Department..

“There’s a lot of complaints about the fact that the Penske people are well represented,” he said. “I’m not aware of any major effort to change the representation of the board.”

Givens-Davidson said she would like to see a community-based authority that interacts with the DNR and Michigan State Police, contributing to decision-making at the park. But whoever is calling the shots will likely have to take a closer look at the role the Grand Prix plays on the island and how this is influencing the experience of park users.

“Because what we’re not doing,” Givens-Davidson said, “is putting the Grand Prix, fun as it is, in wealthy communities.”


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