Cedar Rapids' new $150K gateway sign challenged by DOT chain-link fence

Officials looking into options, nothing set in stone

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No one disputes that the new gateway sign that welcomes northbound motorists to the city on Interstate 380 is an improvement.

After all, its neglected predecessor was broken in pieces with parts of it leaning against a fence.

Quite a City Hall effort has gone in to replacing the old sign: A City Hall Gateways Task Force met for months, held a design competition with Kirkwood Community College horticulture students and shipped the winning design concept to SAA Design Group, Madison, Wis., which came up with the final design.

The total project cost is $156,678, according to city figures.

As it currently stands, though, the new signís beauty is being challenged by an Iowa Department of Transportation chain-link fence running directly in front of it.

The new city gateway sign is 42 feet long and features an 18-foot-tall vertical panel of a downtown skyline, Cedar Rapidsí name atop an image of one of the downtown bridges and stone formations and native plantings at its base.

Itís hard to see the stone and landscaping for the chain link.

Thomas Smith, a planner in the cityís Department of Community Development, and Ruth Fox, of Ruth L. Fox Landscaping Architecture + Planning in Cedar Rapids and a member of the sign task force, both report that they were aware of the chain link fence as the sign moved from the designerís hand to construction.

However, Rob Davis, the cityís engineering operations manager, suggests that the city didnít fully account for the fence in the projectís visioning stage.

Davis reports that he is currently working with the DOT to see if the grading below the sign can be modified so that the alignment of the chain-link fence can be moved to run below the gateway sign.

For now, though, the city has signed off on the project as is and approved the final payment to the contractor, Davis says.

Cathy Cutler, a planner in the Iowa Department of Transportationís Cedar Rapids district office, says Lady Bird Johnson has played a role in all of this.

First Lady Johnsonís interest from the White House led to the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, and the DOT today interprets the law to mean that no community recognition signs are permitted in the DOT right of way.

As a result, the DOT cannot move its chain-link fence behind the cityís new gateway sign. The city, Cutler says, could have elevated the sign so it stood above the chain-link fence, which is an option that the city will explore as it plans to build a new gateway sign for southbound motorists entering the city on Interstate 380 from the north, Fox says.

Interestingly, a local beautification committee and the DOT are working on a new project with limestock blocks and plantings inside the DOTís right of way fence at Interstate 380 and Wilson Avenue SW, †but the project does not include lettering to promote a community or anything else, Cutler explains.

The cityís Smith says that the city has gotten compliments about the new gateway sign as is, and Mayor Ron Corbett says it looks particularly attractive when lighted at night.

The cityís Smith says that the city has gotten compliments about the new sign as is, and Mayor Ron Corbett says it looks particularly attractive when lighted at night.

Meanwhile, Fox asks for patience. It will look better than it does once all the plantings are in, she says.

Bruce Morrow, a landscape architect with SAA Design Group of Madison, Wis., says he realized that the chain-link fence would end up in the mix.

"I think the sign is a very dominant feature," Morrow says. "And I think if I could have the chain-link fence gone, I would have it gone."

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