Robert C. Valade Park aims to be a diverse gathering spot for Detroiters of all ages

Detroiters have a new playground on the East Riverfront and it's geared toward kids of all ages.

Robert C. Valade Park, formerly called Atwater Beach, will open to the public on Oct. 26, with umbrellas in the sand, climbing playscapes, barbecue and sushi offerings, a floating bar, and a giant indoor hang-out space. Located at 2670 Atwater St., Valade Park sits at the foot of Joseph Campau, and is the latest family-focused park built by the city to transform its riverfront.

One of the most exciting aspects of the park, says Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, is that it plays a connecting role on the East Riverfront between the beloved Aretha Franklin Amphitheater and Stroh River Place, and it completes a series of family-oriented parks within a 10-minute walking distance of each other, from the Renaissance Center to Mt. Elliott.

At one point there were plans for the city to turn the 3.2-acre land into a private apartment building, Wallace says, adding “We’re really glad that didn’t happen.” This was after the property served as both a cement factory and a buoy storage yard for the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Definitely not a place you’d want to bring a kid or a grandparent,” he says. But that’s all changed now. Family-fun-in-the-sun is the vibe at Valade Park, which boasts amenities such as volleyball games, musical gardens, public grilling spaces, and drinks on the river, courtesy of Bob’s Barge.

The public grills are new to the riverfront, says Rachel Frierson, director of programming at the Conservancy. No other parks have them.

“We've really heard from our community that they'd love to be able to come out and cook together,” she says. “You'll be able to grill, and have a barbecue with your family and hang out right there in front of the river, and on the beach.”

As barbecue and sushi are themes for cuisine, local vendors Smokey G’s Smokehouse and Geisha Girls Sushi will offer year-round menus from The Shed, the park’s 3,600-square-foot building meant to host food, drink, programming, and events. Frierson says ideas for programming include Zumba, tango, yoga, tai chi, and senior hustle parties. Winter months at the park could see outdoor fires, ice fishing, and possible sledding along the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater.

Ice sailing on the Detroit River was a favorite pastime of Robert C. Valade, for whom the park has been renamed. The former chairman and CEO of Carhartt Inc. is commemorated through an undisclosed donation made to the Conservancy by the Molly and Mark Valade Family Fund.

“It’s great to be able to celebrate someone who built a really iconic Detroit brand, like Carhartt,” Wallace says, “and a family that’s been very warm and very supportive of the space at the riverfront.”

The project has also received support from the William Davidson Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Walters Family Foundation, and the Mona and Richard Alonzo Fund.

The Conservancy received a grant for the project from Gannett/USA Today Network as part of the “A Community Thrives” initiative.

The park will open with HarvestFest, the Conservancy’s annual outdoor festival. The free event includes trick-or-treating, face painting, hayrides, classic Halloween cartoons, and photo ops with popular princess and superhero characters. Previously held on The Dequindre Cut, the relocation of the festival is the perfect way to introduce families to the park before the end of the season, says Frierson.

As riverfront projects continue, Wallace says it’s exciting to know they’ll be enjoyed for generations to come, and to see how the riverfront remains a diverse gathering place where people feel welcome. 

Fundamentally, Wallace says, there’s something magical about the river itself. It’s the place where the city’s energy started 300 years ago. Spending time close to the water, he says, is like sitting around a campfire or gathering at a dinner table.

“There's something very human about it. We’re really lucky to have the river as a starting point for our work.”

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Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller