The waterfront property at 555 Monroe Avenue in Downtown Grand Rapids served as a giant car park for decades. Now the nearly 4 acre site emerges as the epicenter of the local movement to revitalize the Grand River as a recreational place for people.

Grand Rapidians envision 555 Monroe as a central gathering spot at the water's edge - a space that eventually offers front row seats to enjoy the namesake "rapids" the community aspires to restore in the Grand River.

While the incredibly complex work of returning whitewater rapids to the river and building a new park will take years to complete, 555 Monroe currently presents a real "lighter, quicker, cheaper" opportunity to experiment with new and fun ways to reinvent.

The 2018 Movies on Monroe (our outdoor summer film series)
The 2018 Movies on Monroe (our outdoor summer film series)

The work is organized around the Eleven Principles for Creating Great Community Spaces as defined by Project for Public Spaces.

The near-term goal is to begin the generational work of transforming previously underutilized and lifeless property into a real asset that serves as an amenity for people, helps to animate the river's edge and ultimately energize the Monroe North neighborhood in Downtown GR.

These experimental efforts are coordinated by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc (DGRI) and made possible through the collaborative efforts of the City of Grand Rapids, Kent County, Michigan State University and the State of Michigan.

Public Participation & Partners Make the Space

The first principle of making a great public space is embracing the idea that the community is the expert. To begin generating ideas for animating 555 Monroe, DGRI initiated a conversation with the citizen-led GR Forward Goal 5 Alliance, which advises our organization on public space programming and projects that create an ever more active, interesting, memorable, welcoming and inclusive Downtown.

DGRI also engaged residents in the Monroe North neighborhood where the property is located as well as the Monroe North Business Association, as placemaking strategies that promote opportunity for local business is a core value.

These and other groups honed the concept of a "pallet park" placemaking approach at 555 Monroe which focused around, among other things, greening a historically gray site with plants and flowers, adding seating and lighting to encourage people to linger and turning up the volume on public art.

These advisors, in addition to 30+ volunteers and 40+ local artists were also essential to getting the identified improvements pushed into play. Special thanks to the following partners who played a key role in the project's early implementation:

  • The Department
  • Friends of Grand Rapids Parks
  • Local First
  • Lions & Rabbits Art Gallery
  • The Lower Grand Organization of Watersheds
  • Michigan State University
  • Monroe North Business Association
  • Sanctuary Folk Art
  • WYCE
  • The City of Grand Rapids
Movies on Monroe 2018
Movies on Monroe 2018

Fun Facts About Reinventing 555 Monroe

Below are some of the changes put into play to transform 555 Monroe from a parking lot for cars to a "place" that invites people in and begins to change the image of the riverfront and the neighborhood. Overall, more than 60 local artists have participated in the project to date.

  • More than 20,000 lights bulbs were hung to illuminate a grand entrance, add festoon lighting, decorate trees and shield an old fence
  • The ground mural is 55,000 sq ft and features 67 unique fish murals painted by local artists
  • 40,000 yards of yarn deployed by two yarn bombers
  • 100 pallets make up the pod seating, high top tables and couches
  • Approximately 100 tires were re-purposed as sculptures and flower "boxes"
  • 3,000 glow pebbles provide walkway decor
  • 30 planter boxes, 6 large planters, 306 flats, 10 wall hanging planters with rows of 7 and 40 grass plants and one new tree
  • 150 rock rock climbing walls pegs for kids to play
  • 503 community painted wooden fish

A New Special Event Venue

In the wake of the transformation, 555 Monroe quickly began to attract people eating lunch, walking dogs, professional photo shoots and other impromptu activities. The space has also begun to host significant special events.

DGRI in 2018 rebranded its popular outdoor movie series and relocated the event to the site. Movies on Monroe, which features six double-feature movie nights per summer attracted approximately 25,000 attendees. On opening night, the overflow crowd spilled out across the adjacent street with people setting up chairs in the parkway to watch The Greatest Showman.

During the winter of 2019 DGRI will experiment with a temporary pop-up ice rink - weather permitting - for casual sporting leagues and a Silent Disco in February to advance on the community's goal of better utilizing our public spaces in the cold-weather months.

The City and DGRI now regularly receive requests to utilize the space for other public and private events and activities. This is an encouraging trend as it reveals the changes to the property have begun to foster a new sense of interest, ownership and pride in a place that was formerly gritty, underutilized and overlooked.

Silent Disco (Winter 2019)
Silent Disco (Winter 2019)

Long(er)-Term Visioning & Conceptual Plans for the Site

Recent community conversations and planning efforts have begun to explore the long-term placemaking potential and activation opportunities at 555 Monroe, which is one of two dozen "opportunity sites" along the urban riverfront where strategic investments can simultaneously expand public access to the river, promote recreation opportunities, restore the river's natural systems, enhance flood protection and/or promote responsible development opportunities.

Two recent community-led efforts in particular - River for All and GR Forward - undertook careful study of the site.