In the center of downtown Detroit, a stalled construction site has been turned into a new recreational space. Instead of sitting empty, the space is now a roller rink, complete with music, lights, and a freshly painted oval of smooth asphalt.
Detroit’s outdoor roller rink is not alone. One recently opened in Fairfax, Virginia, and the city of Philadelphia recently hosted a roller rink right in front of City Hall. 2021 may be the year the outdoor roller rink begins its comeback.
Detroit’s rink is part of the Monroe Street Midway, a temporary recreation-space installation on the future site of the Monroe Blocks, a mixed use development of offices and residences planned right in the center of the city. But those plans are a few years away from being realized, leaving a large plot of downtown land sitting empty.
Or at least it was empty. During the height of the pandemic, when going outdoors was about all people could do safely, the company that is developing the project looked at its empty plot as a potential escape. “We were asking what can we do safely on this piece of land,” says Ivy Greaner, COO of Bedrock, the real estate company of Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. By far the largest property owner in downtown Detroit, Bedrock has more than 100 buildings in its portfolio and several major projects in the works.
In January, the company partnered with movie theater company Emagine Enertainment to turn part of the wide-open site into the Monroe Street Drive-In, an outdoor theater for people in cars, which ran into the spring. But Bedrock knew the activation could only last so long. “Drive-ins are tough in summer because it’s so light so late,” Greaner says.
The company wanted to continue the activation of the site, so decided to turn the space into a large-scale pop-up park, featuring basketball courts, outdoor seating areas, food vendors, and a roller rink. To create the rink, Bedrock partnered with RollerCade, a local Black-owned roller rink that’s been operated by the same family since 1955.
Cousins Kyle Black and Janine Folks are the RollerCade’s third-generation owners. Their rink had to close for eight months during the pandemic, so they were excited about moving operations outdoors.
“Before we were born, we were spending time in the skating rink. We are the definition of rink rats,” Black says. “We know the roller rink business front to back and upside down, so it wasn’t a difficult transition.”
Folks says the outdoor version of RollerCade, which opened in late May and runs until September, has seen huge and diverse crowds. Bedrock is only tracking first-time visitors who have to fill out a liability form to use the rink, but saw 8,467 skaters in June alone. “It’s like you put the RollerCade on steroids,” she says.
With its location downtown, the rink is surrounded by towers and buildings, and one part of the rink even features a view of the city’s iconic Renaissance Center building. “You can almost get so distracted by the scenery that you might run into something,” Folks says. “But it’s just beautiful, you’re outside, you’re breathing fresh air.”
For Bedrock, the entire project is a way to make use of otherwise dormant urban space, but it’s also an effort to keep the downtown area active amid the pandemic, and beyond. “Detroit has a need for experiences like this, and other experiences, period,” says Black.