Cars race around a track in front of Detroit's skyline.
Belle Isle hosts the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix every summer, with the Detroit skyline as a backdrop. Paul Sancya/AP

Every summer, the Detroit Grand Prix takes over a large part of city-owned Belle Isle. Opponents say an auto race has no business being there.

On Earth Day, crews for the Detroit Grand Prix (officially, “the  Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear Corporation”) began setting up for the annual auto race, which will begin on May 31. The site of the race is Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River that has been the city’s most significant public park for more than a century.

The 982-acre park attracts an estimated 4 million visitors per year, who come for family reunions and weddings, to use amenities like the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, and to enjoy the natural areas on the island’s east end that attract a number of migrating birds. But the Grand Prix—which has taken place on the island intermittently since 1992—complicates these pursuits for weeks during Detroit’s short summer.

The race draws around 100,000 people. It takes up nearly one-third of the island for more than two months of setup and tear-down time, using a permanent nine-acre paddock that sits on the west side of Belle Isle, adjacent to the neoclassical James Scott Memorial Fountain.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy to have a race here. Several protests against it took place this month, and those opposed to the Grand Prix have been speaking at public meetings throughout the year. The debate over the Grand Prix, pitting public-space and environmental advocates against officials who cite the benefits to Detroit, is a debate over what kind of uses are acceptable in a public park.

Angela Lugo-Thomas holds a sign at a protest opposing the use of Belle Isle for the Detroit Grand Prix. (Brian Allnutt)

The Grand Prix, which is organized by billionaire Roger Penske, resembles other privatized uses of parkland that activists say undermine the ecology and historic mission of parks. Perhaps the closest parallel is in Chicago, where the Obama Foundation wants to use 20 acres of the Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-designed Jackson Park for the Obama Presidential Center. Although the Grand Prix is considered a temporary event, the large paddock and lengthy setup and tear-down times dramatically alter the appearance of Belle Isle. Local activists refer to the race as “the occupation”—a term that seems less hyperbolic when one sees the miles of fencing and concrete barriers that go up every April.

Last year, Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided to keep the race on the island for another three to five years. That hasn’t deterred the group Belle Isle Concern, which opposes the race. “A lot of people thought that with the contract renewed, interest would wane,” the group’s Sandra Novacek said. “But actually, we found it’s kind of the opposite—there’s a certain amount of indignance, I guess.”

Belle Isle is owned by the city, but the DNR calls the shots there, having been given a 30-year lease to run the park in 2014 when Detroit was operating under an emergency manager. Emergency management essentially suspended local democracy and city control of the park with it. The department has made undoubted improvements by opening restrooms, refurbishing picnic shelters, and opening up the island’s lakes and canals to the river.

Ron Olson, the DNR’s chief of parks and recreation, makes the case for the Grand Prix by citing “documented economic benefits” of $50 million to $60 million, which a Grand Prix-sponsored study says the race generates. But a sports economist and local journalists have questioned that estimate.

In terms of benefits to the park itself, Olson says a sizable portion of the park’s yearly budget comes from the $450,000 that the Grand Prix pays in various fees, and the DNR’s ability to use these funds to obtain grants for other improvements. However, some of this money goes into roadways and other race infrastructure, and the sum doesn’t account for what the event costs the state.

The Belle Isle Conservancy, the primary nonprofit supporting the park, hosts a “Grand Prixmiere” gala that raises money to keep the Albert Kahn-designed Belle Isle Aquarium open and pays for repairs to the Scott Fountain. Public-private partnerships like these are important for large parks across the country, but the question remains: What is an acceptable compromise for a park looking to generate income?

Compared to events in other parks, the Detroit Grand Prix “doesn’t pass the smell test,” according to Adrian Benepe, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land. “This is supposed to be a place where you get away from the noise and pollution of the rest of the city.”

Although a limited number of non-race passes are being offered this year, the race essentially shuts down the park for several days in May and June, with the official setup and tear-down period lasting 60 days—shorter than it used to be, although still longer than comparable races. “It’s more money than they’re getting from other sources,” Benepe said of the DNR’s take. “But it doesn’t justify the damage done to the park and it doesn’t justify the taking away of the park for users.” (Although not directly involved in local efforts to move the race, Benepe has talked with groups that are and has expressed his concerns to city officials.)

Race fencing and stacked tires obscure a view of Belle Isle’s famous conservatory, which was completed in 1904. (Brian Allnutt)

Organizers point to concessions they’ve made and the spotlight the race shines on Detroit. “What kind of value can you put on the exposure it gives our city to the national and international audience that watches the race?” Bud Denker, the Grand Prix chairman, told the Detroit Free Press. “I can’t put a figure on that.” Opponents maintain that the race, as well as the park fee that the DNR implemented when it took over, contravene the values embedded in an Olmsted-inspired park—that it should be “free and open,” in the words of Charles Birnbaum of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit.

“This is a privatized use,” Birnbaum said of the race. “A decision is being made to sacrifice irreplaceable parkland that has been held in trust. To me, this is no different than the Detroit Institute of Art entertaining selling off artwork.”

Benepe argues the public’s right to the park is undergirded by the public-trust doctrine, which privileges public uses over private ones on publicly held lands. That was the basis for Protect Our Parks’ lawsuit to stop the Obama Center in Chicago.* In both Chicago and Detroit, community activists see these privatized uses occupying public parks when they could be driving economic development elsewhere in the city.

The controversy also underscores the role that urban parks play amid new ecological realities. The Detroit River sits at the confluence of two of the nation’s four major flyways for migratory birds. Ecologically diverse green space in an urbanized landscape serves as a crucial stopover site for migrating birds and allows others to nest. The Detroit Grand Prix doesn’t occur during peak migration season, but one biologist has suggested that noise on the level of an IndyCar race could have a negative impact on nesting birds and bird diversity. Bird populations are facing steep declines across North America.

According to members of Detroit Audubon, the large concrete paddock has almost certainly destroyed some bird habitat, although the DNR maintains there is little important wildlife habitat on this end of the island. (Building the pad involved tearing down trees planted by the SOSAD organization to memorialize childhood victims of gun violence.) The DNR says it has studied these issues; what’s publicly available is essentially a bullet point on the event proposal. The environmental policy coordinator for Detroit Audubon, Jim Bull, said this was “not a serious environmental assessment.”

The Detroit chapter of the Sierra Club, Detroit Audubon, and Michigan Audubon have pushed for an environmental impact study. New York City conducted such a study when a Grand Prix was proposed for Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in Queens back in the 1980s. The expected impact was “horrendous,” Benape said, and the then-parks commissioner stopped it.

A man photographs geese from Belle Isle as they fly over the frozen Detroit River. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

The race could work elsewhere in the city without the same environmental and cultural impacts, opponents say. (Race organizers have said they’ll leave the city if they can’t use Belle Isle, even if offered another site. “That would be a bluff I’d be happy to call,” Benepe remarked.) Unlike many cities, Detroit has alternatives such as City Airport or the old state fairgrounds, sites where a permanent space could be set up for the Grand Prix, as well as for the North American International Auto Show and large concerts and festivals. A new site might incorporate restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds, driving investment in another part of the city rather than occupying an already treasured public asset.

On May 16, there was a full house at the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee (BIPAC) meeting on the island, with the majority of public commenters speaking against the race. BIPAC, however, is closely connected to the Grand Prix—both Bud Denker (a Penske executive) and Sommer Woods (who works for the Penske-affiliated M-1 Rail nonprofit, which runs the Detroit Q Line streetcar) sit on the committee.

Lucille Nawara of Belle Isle Concern made an impassioned case to the new head of the DNR, Daniel Eichinger, referencing the publicly funded Piet Oudolf garden that will be installed on the island beginning this year. Oudolf is something of a star in the world of landscape architecture, having worked on New York’s High Line and Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Nawara believes that this project represents the future of the island. Referring to other landscapes where Oudolf has worked, Nawara said: “You cannot imagine any of those parks having racetracks running through them.” For long stretches of the next few years, at least, this is exactly what park visitors will experience.

*CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Friends of the Parks filed suit to prevent construction of the Obama Presidential Center. The lawsuit was filed by a different group, Protect Our Parks.

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