Monroe Center is a bustling centerpiece of downtown Grand Rapids--20 years after the failed attempt at making it a pedestrian mall, a former city developer said.

On Nov. 26, 1997, the city allowed cars to drive on part of Monroe Center for the first time since 1980. The project took years and almost $7 million, but the attempt at making it a pedestrian mall did not bring in many businesses, said Jay Fowler, former director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority.

"Monroe Center was the main street in Grand Rapids," Fowler said. "This went through a long evolution. It was done at the same time as the opening of Van Andel arena. Those two things together really helped to spark lots of other activity, lot of investment."

The project had three phases of building: renovating the center, creating Rosa Parks Circle and Monument Park, he said.

Rosa Parks Circle opened for ice skating Saturday, Nov. 25. 

"Monroe center really serves as a community gathering point, not only as our main street, but with Rosa Parks Circle, as a really important events space," Fowler said.

The growing downtown population is also driving the economic growth of Monroe Center, said Gina Van Timmeren, owner of Gina's Boutique across from the Grand Rapids Police Department.

"I've seen, probably in the last five years, so many more people living down here," Van Timmeren said. "And it's great to have local people here that come in every week, and you get to know them. They support small businesses because they live down here and want downtown to be successful."

Downtown revitalization is an ongoing effort, Fowler said.

"There is always work to be done, and this is really a key piece for revitalizing downtown Grand Rapids. The next 20 years, I think we'll see still tremendous growth. Now, I think the emphasis is on new construction...bring more density, more intensity to the use downtown."

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