A Collective Vision

June 14, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Rosa Parks Circle may be a park in the center of the city. Or it may be much, much more.

The project brought a legendary artist to Grand Rapids, partnered the city with the county, showed the heart in a local foundation and fostered cooperative operations between New York and local companies.

This collaborative effort was the result of Maya Lin, the artist and sculptor best known for her design of the Vietnam War Memorial.

“What interested me was getting everyone involved, and when it became obvious that it was about revitalizing a downtown area where art can really act as a catalyst to kind of reform a downtown area,” Lin told sister publication Grand Rapids Magazine (September 20001 issue), “that is when I got extremely excited about it.”

On Sept. 6, the installation, named “Ecliptic,” will be dedicated to the public as part of Celebration on the Grand, and will open in its entirety for the first time since its creation. The park has been opened in stages, with the ice rink this past winter and the stage this summer for Blues on the Mall and other local entertainment.

“It was a highly unusual situation, opening the park in three stages like we did,” said Wayne Norlin, lead designer and principal in charge of the project with Design Plus. “It has to be determined what is still under the contractor and what should be open to the public. It all just adds to the complexity, and the significance of the final dedication.”

The project required plenty of cooperation and was five years in the making.

In 1995, the Frey Foundation became interested in providing a sculpture near the corner of Monroe Center and Pearl Street as part of the city’s renaissance plans. Community leaders and people in the arts reviewed the work of several artists and in the end, chose Lin.

But Lin wasn’t interested in creating just one piece of art. When she learned discussions were underway regarding the redesign of the amphitheater, she asked, “By the way, what if I got involved in the park?”

And the vision was born.

But cost of the park grew along with the project’s scope and eventually settled at $8.75 million. Once again, however, cooperation would be key. The city contributed $1.2 million; the Downtown District Authority (DDA), $3.9 million; and the Frey Foundation, which donated more than $2 million, received an additional $1.3 million from private donors and established a $1 million maintenance endowment. Total construction costs topped out at $6,086,465, Norlin noted.

Numerous firms were involved in everything from the street construction and planning to the planting of the trees along Monroe. Moore & Bruggink, a civil engineering company, was responsible for everything underground. JDH, a structural engineering company, worked with Design Plus to eliminate extended basements that Norlin said were located under the old Monroe Mall.

“Many businesses had basements underneath the store plus an extension under the mall and JDH had to eliminate the extra space and create a barrier from the stores’ basements to the street,” he said.

Earhardt Construction has been the general contractor for the entire project and has worked with the numerous subcontractors. Earhardt worked in collaboration with ServIce, one of the four selected by Lin, on the layout, design, piping and mechanical equipment associated with the ice rink.

Lin also selected Canon Russeau for work on the landscape for the park, including the grassy mounds, paths, trees and other landscaping. Hobbs Fountain was the contractor that collaborated with Lin on the mechanics of the water table and mist fountain.

New York landscape architects Quennell Rothschild contracted with Design Plus for its assistance. Lin also hired New York lighting designer Linnea Tillet.

“It was just a nice, seamless collaboration that allowed this to become a park, artwork landscaping and building,” Lin said in the Grand Rapids Magazine interview.

While the mix of contractors and city and county officials was unusual, that was not the only unique aspect of the project; this was also a first for the Frey Foundation.

“Usually we have certain areas of grant making where we feel the city will be improved or aspects of the arts we are interested in,” said Milt Rohwer, president of the Frey Foundation. “Those are the areas where we accept ideas and give suggestions. But this was a very different situation in the sense that we initiated one project but in turn became involved in a completely different and larger project altogether. But we also knew that Maya Lin was a genius and we were happy to work with her.”

Lin worked throughout the entire design of the park with the idea of water and what it meant to the city.

“I wanted to focus on the more physical aspects of Grand Rapids,” Lin told the magazine staff writer, Myrna Anderson. “The water was the taking-off point.”

So she incorporated the three properties of water: vapor, liquid and solid.

The mist fountain serves as a cooling-off spot in the park and represents the vapor property. “I think the challenge was so that it wouldn’t soak you,” Lin joked. “Just give you a fine spray.”

In the opposite corner of the park stands the water table, a fountain with a seamless flow of water over a round, flat surface, to represent liquidity. Grass-covered mounds, sculpted to represent waves, border the park to carry out the water theme. And finally there is the ice, where Lin designed a circular skating surface — one into which she spun a little more magic.

Lin added that she worked hard to make the ice rink the centerpiece of the park and wanted to add something “extra” to the skating experience.

“I started working with the lighting designer, and she showed me these fiber optic points and that we could imbed them in the ground. And I said, ‘That is fantastic.’”

While Lin also noted that a lot of her work has to do with time it was important to her to be able to mark a point in time when her creation was coming to life.

“The point in time when we put the piece in happened to be the year 2000, which was very exciting to me,” she said. “So I asked for the star charts of Jan. 1, 2000, from the sky over Grand Rapids.”

From there the fiber optic lights were placed in the cement and when the ice is frozen over it, skaters have the feeling of skating among the stars.

“It’s always more than you expect in the best of worlds. I think you’re in trouble if it’s less than you expect,” laughed Lin. “I think it has to surprise you a little.”

And surprise people it has.

“We have been surprised throughout all of the development stages. We were told that some 20,000 skaters made use of the rink before the park was completely open. That greatly exceeded our expectations. And we expect that the park will continue to serve as a location for public gatherings as well as an attractive attraction that will only get better.”

Another star of the park is Rosa Parks. When the City Commission was given the task of naming the park it came up with several names before deciding on “Rosa Parks Circle.” “Frankly, Rosa Parks is one of my heroes. And if she’s honored to be named it, I think it’s wonderful,” Lin said.

Just as the park stands in circles, in the center circle of the city, it comes full-circle back to Lin’s vision; she hopes the installation will bring life into downtown Grand Rapids.

“I hope that people are using it for the lunchtime hours, that they’re coming out there, that they’re eating lunch out there, that the shops along there have become more activated because of it, and maybe used for smaller more intimate concerts. It’s just a living place.”

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