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Rotary Park brings diverse crowd downtown

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If the number of people milling, chilling, strolling and sitting atop downtown Lansing’s new riverfront perch, Rotary Park, last week is any indication of things to come, the 2-week-old park may have accomplished a feat that has eluded the city for decades.

In urban planner lingo, it has activated the waterfront.

Size-wise, it’s a small park, but the privately funded project marks a decisive moment in the city’s ongoing pivot to the river. By now, everyone recognizes the Grand River — once the city’s backyard industrial cesspool — as the city’s lifeblood and centerpiece.

Rotary Park bids to become a hub of riverfront activity.

The backbone of the park is a few hundred feet of crisp concrete embankment, stepped down to river’s edge for duck ogling, fishing or close-up ripple contemplation. For a higher view, bays with tables and umbrellas poke out of the embankment like the prows of little ships. To the south is a fancy new kayak landing and dock.

Just before dusk Saturday, Gerard Mausé and a friend took in the sunset from a pair of chairs overlooking the sandy (but non-swimming) beach north of the embankment. Mausé drove to the park with a friend from their home on the south side.

“It’s an attractive place for people to come and relax, enjoy another area of the city,” he said.

Four tiny shoes were lined up on the embankment, not far from the table where Mausé sat, musing. Eric Robins of Lansing brought his two sons, Liam and Lennon, to roll, rummage and bulldoze in the sand. Robins and his crew were already making their second visit.

“I love it that you want to bring something downtown, do something with the waterfront,” Robins said. “It’s such a great resource for the city to have. This makes it a little more kid-friendly.”

Making everybody happy with Rotary Park will not be easy — or even possible. Mausé said he wouldn’t mind if some food and drink materialized on his table to go with the sunset. While he pictured a basket of french fries and a beer on the table in front of him, a woman named Marie, strolling nearby, said she hoped booze would not saturate the sands of Rotary.

“Everything is about liquor in the city,” she said. “We need more family oriented attractions.”

Another strolling couple, Harley and Deltavier Robertson of Lansing, stopped to look at the majestic Ottawa Power Station across the river. Both come from places with bigger water and much bigger beaches — he is from the Caribbean and she is from Miami — but they seemed to be having a fine time.

“It uplifts the city,” Robertson said. “We like to sit down and enjoy the scene. I especially like the Forest of Lights.” At the north end of the park, near the Shiawassee Street bridge, the trees are strung with vertical lights that change color.

“I’ve always liked this pathway but this gives it a nice boost,” Robertson said.

He regarded the “beach” with benign bemusement. “They doing the best with what they have,” he said.

“I like the lights, I like the water,” his wife said. “It’s a peaceful spot.”

By now, traffic through the park was non-stop. The white moon was aloft in a purple haze, but kids were still playing in the sand. A large troupe of strollers, hauling a wagon, rolled into view, past the loopy stainless steel sculpture, “Inspiration,” that commands the center of the park. The kids in the group couldn’t resist peeling off and running around it in circles.

Park planners did well to provide a people-friendly pedestal for the 20-foot-tall, $225,000 sculpture, which seemed stuck in an obscure, compromise location when it was erected here in 2011. The play of light on the sculpture, from the nearby “Forest of Lights” and from the city itself, gave it a striking night presence.

Louise Wilkes, who lives in Riverfront Apartments just to the north, is already a regular here. She schmoozed near the sculpture with a group of five other people and three dogs.

“We were here 4 1/2 hours today with my great-granddaughter,” she said. “This is a great place for the kids. She played, I sat.”

“I think this is fantastic,” her friend, Maureen Carpenter, said.

About 10 p.m., as people passed to and fro on the walkway above them, a brightly garbed couple sat romantically on the lower steps of the embankment. Only their heads were visible to passers by. Bansi and Swedta Muddada walked to the park from the Outfield, the nearby apartment project adjoining the baseball stadium.

“This is awesome,” Muddada said. “What a nice evening.” They lingered wistfully, for almost a half hour, on the banks, and looked at the lights on the river. He was already thinking about winter.

“In a couple of months, we won’t be able to sit here in shorts anymore, so get it when you can,” he said.

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