Each year, spring on Belle Isle sees the return of birds like the bufflehead and white-winged scoter, the bloom of its old-growth forest, and easy access to some of the city’s best views.
But in recent years, spring on the 985-acre island park also means the return of construction barrels, heavy machinery, trucks, pylons, cement barricades, tire piles and miles of fencing needed to prepare for the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.
Guide to the 2016 Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix
The perennial construction project that is the Grand Prix’s setup and breakdown stretches between 80 and 120 days. After the temporary, 2.3-mile raceway starts taking shape on the island’s west end in March or early April, it remains in place until the end of June.
For much of that time, access is limited or prohibited.
And that’s a longer period than is standard. An MLive look at the setup and breakdown of every other IndyCar and Formula One street race across the world found that the Belle Isle Grand Prix requires the longest construction schedule â often by far.
The situation is one the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which took control of the island in 2014, has said is out of its control.
It inherited a contract the city of Detroit signed with race founder Roger Penske that provides Penske seven weeks for set up and four weeks for breakdown, though it sometimes takes longer.
The sustained inconvenience for park visitors has led to criticism from a growing number Michigan residents who question why Penske needs three months to set up a three-day race on a state park.
“If they really need that much time to set up for an event that takes place over a weekend, then they’ve probably got the wrong place,” said Oak Park resident Lucy Beatty, who is a regular on Belle Isle.
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She and others want the race off the island, or at least a reduced construction schedule, especially as the world’s other race organizers manage the task more efficiently.
So why does it take so long in Detroit?
Bud Denker, chairman of the Grand Prix, said in an emailed statement that the Grand Prix clipped its construction timeline by two weeks this year, and said the lengthy preparation period has to do with safety.
“We use extra safety fencing and cabling around the circuit, along with other preventative measures, which does takes time to install,” Denker wrote.
“Our operations team works very hard to minimize the time we spent on the island, but to construct and operate a world-class racing and entertainment venue on an island circuit, it does require a massive effort and a commitment to safety.”
The Penske team didn’t respond to questions about the safety record of races with shorter construction timelines.
But officials have previously said the construction schedule is so long because “that’s what the contract allows.”
That contract is in place until 2018, but it’s unclear what kind of pressure the state would put on Penske to shorten the timeline or move from the island.
In 2015, the Belle Isle Grand Prix raised $1.1 million for the Belle Isle Conservancy through its Grand Prixmiere charity event, which paid for the reopening of the Scott Fountain, added LED lights to the MacArthur Bridge, installed walkways and benches along with other island improvements.
Detroit’s race weekend – June 3 to 5 this year – is an unquestionably huge and popular event that draws between 60,000 and 95,000 people annually.
But other cities set up and breakdown in shorter timeframes.
In Toronto, the Honda Indy assembles its raceway in the city’s downtown area over about three weeks. All work was done at night and required no full road closures in the dense downtown district, except race weekend, according to the Toronto Sun.
The set up and break down for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla. was shortened to around three weeks following complaints from residents and the business community, according to the Tampa Tribune.
And in Monaco, which hosts the largest street race in the world, construction and breakdown takes around seven weeks. Race organizers there contend with tight winding streets, elevation shifts, and a track that runs through dense, urban areas that appear more challenging than Belle Isle.
A race with a construction and tear down period of comparable length in Melbourne, Australia’s Albert Park is highly divisive and subject to annual protests, which attracted as many as 20,000 residents one year. Park goers in Melbourne air grievances similar to those in Detroit â the construction schedule is too lengthy, and an urban, public park shouldn’t be used for private auto racing three months each year, protesters argue.
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What the larger dispute boils down to is a disagreement between gear heads and naturists over how the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed public park should be used and shared, and park supporters aren’t thrilled with how their turf is being treated.
“It’s a public park, it’s not a private racetrack. People who are for the race say, ‘But a racetrack is what I want.’ Maybe they don’t live close enough to understand the impact that it has and why the park shouldn’t be closed to the public,” said Sandra Novacek, who organized a Grand Prix protest and a Facebook page that expresses opposition.
Race supporters often point to the approximately $13 million Penske invested to improve Belle Isle, and they argue that kind of money gives the billionaire race mogul carte blanche on the island.
Race opponents, however, see it differently, especially since parts of Belle Isle remain shabby outside the race’s footprint. They note Penske’s investment involved laying down cement on the 2.3-mile track, developing a 400,000-square-foot cement paddock, and other improvements to Penske-controlled facilities. There’s debate over whether adding cement to Belle Isle constitutes an improvement.
“A lot of people say putting a ten-acre paddock on the island is not good for a lot of reasons. It’s ugly, it’s not good for drainage, and it doesn’t fit in with the landscape in the park,” Novacek said.
Race supporters also argue that the Grand Prix’s footprint only takes up around a third of the island, but opponents note the west end is one of the park’s best areas. And when one considers “usable” park space â outside of wet land, dense woods, or an abandoned zoo â the footprint is actually much larger.
“One of the most beautiful parts of the island is the west end, where there’s the Scott Fountain, beautiful views of downtown Detroit, the Dossin Museum. It’s not the most natural part of he island, but it’s a nice area to bike, walk, play, to view, to see,” Novacek said. “That’s like someone taking over your living room and kitchen and saying ‘at least you have your bedroom and bathrooms.’”
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