Hurdles aplenty as Cedar Rapids rebuilds

In second phase, new housing the priority, commercial redevelopment on the horizon

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Never before in Cedar Rapids history has infill development been as important as it is right now.

The disastrous and historic flood of 2008 affected more than 10 square miles of the city’s core, including some 5,900 residential properties. Almost five years later, the city has conducted most of the buyouts and arranged most of the demolitions.

Redevelopment is the next phase in Iowa’s second-largest city. Some has already begun.

About 60 new homes have been constructed through the ROOTs program, a partnership between the city and the Iowa Economic Development Authority that offers down payment assistance.

But the various funding sources used for flood recovery each come with their own restrictions and rules. Flood protection plans, neighborhood plans, historic districts and individual redevelopment programs, such as ROOTs, all include conditions, or at least guiding principles.

Also, to encourage redevelopment, the city has provided incentives to developers who meet certain requirements.

“It gets complex,” said Paula Mitchell, grant programs manager in the city's Community Development Department. “There are overlapping policy issues.”

The city used disaster recovery grants from two primary sources to purchase flood-damaged properties — the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. In general, FEMA dollars were primarily used on property between the Cedar River and where a levy has been proposed, and CDBG funds were used to buy land where the levy would be built and beyond.

For properties the city bought using FEMA money, no new permanent, occupied structures can be built. Only structures that can be flooded again without significant costs to taxpayers, such as open pavilions, can be constructed in those areas. In the Time Check neighborhood, the city has proposed a park for this land along the river.

“The assumption is that those properties are going to flood again because they are in the greatest risk area,” said Caleb Mason, a redevelopment analyst for the city. “They want it to have limited effect on the floodway, so that it could flow through something or over the top of something.”

Less stringent requirements are placed on properties the city purchased using CDBG funds. Construction isn’t allowed in the 100-year flood plain, except for historic districts or viable business districts, as defined by the state.

Parts of the Czech Village and New Bohemia neighborhoods qualified because they already had been deemed historic.

The flood left large areas for redevelopment, but City Planner Vern Zakostelecky said infill development is important in areas outside the flood zone, too. Compact development maximizes the city’s investment in infrastructure, and supports business vitality.

On the flip side, vacant lots usually lead to dis-investment and declining property values.

“There are other areas in the city, pockets of undeveloped land, that we certainly want to see developed because there’s already that existing infrastructure there,” said Zakostelecky, who works in the newly created Development Services Department. “There’s sewer, water and utilities there, the roadway network is there, and a lot of times it might be on a bus route, close to an existing trail or close to schools.”

New housing has been the first priority of the city, but more commercial redevelopment is on the horizon. Plans have been submitted to convert the former Wells Fargo Bank building at the corner of First Street and Third Avenue SW into a restaurant, a stone's throw from the site of a proposed casino.

Developer Fred Timko, who also had a hand in redeveloping the Bottleworks Loft Condominiums in New Bohemia, plans to build a six-story condominium building next to the Louis Sullivan-designed bank.

The city regularly holds informational meetings to educate developers about the conditions that need to be met to redevelop specific properties. The developers take a tour of the site and leave with paperwork that describes how to put together a proposal the city would consider.

As with any redevelopment or revitalization, the goal is to inject enough public assistance into an area that private developers are willing to make investments on their own.

“This city council has really stressed infill development,” Zakostelecky said. “We’ve looked at our regulations to try and incentivize or provide some relief on development standards, so that it makes it easier for the developer, a little more financially reasonable for them to develop in those areas.”

Some neighborhoods, including Wellington Heights, near Coe College, will be developing neighborhood plan maps over the next couple years to determine what development makes sense and where.

One of the city’s next steps is to identify other viable business districts.

Much of the work will shape the look of the city for years to come.

“Redevelopment is kind of like filling in missing teeth in a neighborhood that’s recovering,” Mitchell said.

Next week: What’s in the future for development in the Corridor?

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