New watercraft launch at Riverside Park confirms City's commitment to equity and access

In summer 2020, paddling Riverside Park’s lagoon will be an all-abilities activity thanks to a new accessible kayak-canoe launch.

The largest body of still water in Grand Rapids’ parks system, the lagoon offers the Park system’s safest paddling ventures. Funded by a $150,000 Michigan Department of Natural Resources recreation passport grant and $80,000 from the City’s parks millage, the project will also include new restrooms and a picnic shelter that meet universal design standards, handicap parking spaces near the dock and shelter, eight-foot-wide paved paths to connect people with disabilities to park amenities, and an accessible, portable restroom on the dock side of the lagoon.

“The cool thing here, a lot of the park improvements are coming from resident voices. During the Master Plan process, residents voiced desire for more recreation opportunities in the city, especially river sport and paddle sport opportunities,” says David Marquardt, director, City of Grand Rapids Department of Parks and Recreation. “The other priority that residents shared with us was to ensure that we are not only meeting ADA requirements, but doing our best to exceed those.”

The universal-access canoe and kayak launch is one example of how the Parks department has listened to those requests. Located in place of the existing dock, the launch will feature guide rails for easy access in and out of the water, launch rollers for easy movement of the watercraft, and a transfer bench so paddlers using a wheelchair can easily board their watercrafts. When Marquardt shared that a grant had been submitted to fund the launch at a Creston Neighborhood Association pancake breakfast in March 2018, a man using a wheelchair approached him after the presentation.

“He had the biggest smile on his face,” Marquardt recalls. “He said, ‘You have no idea how much this means to me and the value it brings to me as an individual.’”

Marquardt notes that without Parks and Rec millage dollars, approved by voters in 2013, the department would not be able to apply for the matching grant funds that are making the accessible watercraft launch and other recent parks improvements possible.

A City park for three years shy of century, Riverside Park’s 187-acres provide 1.75 miles of Grand River frontage, a creek, woods, wetlands, mature trees and grass, ponds and the lagoon (which accesses the Grand River), and islands. During heavy rains, the park serves as a wetland, absorbing the Grand’s floodwaters. By the 1980s, the park had fallen into disrepair and was most popularly known for minor-league criminal activities taking place there. However, the City of Grand Rapids Parks Department has turned it around, making the park into one of the neighborhood’s favorite places to stroll, run, fish, play ball, and picnic.

“This park has come a long way,” Marquardt says “Ways we are seeing this turnaround include the past two years, when eighth-grade public school students came out for canoe trips. We had nearly 1,000 school children on the water in one week. Being there with those children on those paddling days, I saw kids who didn’t even know the park existed. They had a sense of awe, a sense of inspiration that was really, really impressive. It was a reminder that we have incredible, valuable, open park spaces in our city that need to be celebrated — and opportunities to make them more available, more accessible, and make people more aware of them.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor.

Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.