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EGLE brownfield grant helps to turn contaminated site of former harness racing track in Northville into new housing, parks

A $248 million brownfield redevelopment that’s going to result in more than 400 new homes, three new parks, and the daylighting of a river currently entombed in a concrete culvert is a cause for celebration for many people. But probably not for horse racing fans. That’s because the redevelopment is happening at the former site of Northville Downs, Michigan’s last racetrack.

Rendering of River Park after the daylighting of the Rouge River in Northville.

Rendering of River Park after the daylighting of the Rouge River in Northville.


Public Act 199 of 1933 legalized horse racing in Michigan. The first licensed pari-mutuel bet, where bettors wager against each other instead of against the house, happened on September 2, 1933, at the State Fairgrounds in Detroit. Several states legalized horse racing in the 1930s in an attempt to offset rising unemployment and falling tax revenue during the Great Depression. The “sport of kings” continued to grow in Michigan… until the state lottery was established in 1972. That began the long decline for racing in our state. Native American tribes started opening casinos on their land in the 1980s. Voters passed Proposal E in 1996, allowing three casinos to open in Detroit. The competition for the gambling dollar was getting more and more fierce.

The horse racing industry wasn’t giving up. Public Act 108 of 1986 allowed “simulcast” wagering in Michigan, meaning bets could be placed at tracks in Michigan but on races happening elsewhere, even in other countries. The Horse Racing Law of 1995 (Public Act 279) expanded simulcasting to allow for a full day of betting on races happening outside the state. The change was an immediate shot in the arm, with the amount of money bet at Michigan tracks rising from $300 million in 1995 to almost $500 million in 1996 according to the Michigan Gaming Control Board. By 2017 the Michigan House Fiscal Agency estimated that simulcast wagering accounted for more than 95% of all wagers at Michigan racetracks.

But it wouldn’t last. As recently as 1989 the state had eight licensed tracks. By 2016, it was down to two. Hazel Park Raceway was sold and closed two years later, leaving Northville Downs as the last track standing. It hung on until February 3, 2024, when it held its final harness race. The sport that had drawn millions of fans and billions of dollars in bets, purses, and business was done in Michigan.

Closing the half-mile track and its several acres of parking spaces could have left a massive eyesore in downtown Northville. But city leaders targeted the area for much-needed new housing. The developer’s plans for The Downs call for 446 units, a mix of apartments, condos, row houses, townhomes, single-family homes, carriage homes, and 18,500 square feet of new commercial space. Three new parks will add walkable green space to the redevelopment. Central Park will be 1.5 acres, and Gateway Park 1.25 acres. The largest, River Park, will be 10.44 acres and will include the daylighting of the Walled Lake Branch of the River Rouge. It runs just east of the racetrack and was rerouted into a concrete culvert and buried in the 1960s. EGLE awarded the Northville Brownfield Redevelopment Authority a $1 million grant to help pay for demolition of Northville Downs and the culvert, as well as removal of contaminated soil covering the culvert.

The quality of life and aesthetic improvements won’t be the only ones. The developer expects the $248 million project to generate 54 new jobs. The city expects the State Equalized Value of the property to rise from the current $7.04 million to $112 million when the work is done. The redevelopment will be connected to the popular Hines Park Trail and to downtown Northville. And while nothing can replace the thrill of hearing thundering hooves coming down the stretch, replacing it with the sounds of people living, working, and playing in The Downs isn’t a bad substitute.