Epic Rebirth

Comeback story: How does Cedar Rapids keep the momentum going?

Leaders encourage big ideas as city gains in confidence, pride

This 23 acres of city-owned land near the Cedar River — once reserved for a casino that never materialized — is ripe for development, and civic leaders are recommending Cedar Rapids “think big” in guiding its future. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
This 23 acres of city-owned land near the Cedar River — once reserved for a casino that never materialized — is ripe for development, and civic leaders are recommending Cedar Rapids “think big” in guiding its future. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — After working for just about every coffee shop in the Corridor — Capanna, Java House and Brewhemia, among others — to learn the coffee trade over the past five years, Rebecca Davidson wanted to start her own in Kingston Village.

She and her husband, Phil, knew in November 2016 when they first saw the brick Rowell hardware building at 120 Third Ave. SW, which had been vacant since the 2008 flood, they had found a home for Dash Coffee Roasters.

Kingston had seen some reinvestment since the flood, largely in housing, but also Popoli Ristorante, which opened in the historic Louis Sullivan Bank building in 2014; Matthew 25, the nonprofit that renovated a new headquarters in 2016; and a building with a bail bondsman and tattoo parlor that has been updated.

But, with empty lots and buildings, the area had — and still has — a ways to go before unlocking the vibrancy found in other parts of the Corridor.

The Davidsons, though, see the district’s potential and want to be part of what is to come.

Explore the neighborhoods.

Browse an interactive visualization of all flooded neighborhoods, including Kingston Village, and how their property values have changed in the last decade.

“The plans for the next couple of years got us stoked about what was going on and what was going to become of the area,” said Davidson, 32.

Since Dash flipped on the lights in November, Thew Brewing, Quinton’s, and Local Pour have opened and a few new housing projects have come on line or are in the works. And, one of the biggest potential game changers in the years to come — how to use eight acres of city-owned land — is just behind Dash.

As much as anywhere, Kingston Village is an example of the momentum since the flood and — if you can imagine what’s to come — the next phase of Cedar Rapids’ comeback story.

While major public infrastructure projects and recovery defined the past 10 years, local leaders anticipate the momentum will continue in the next several years with a pipeline of private development, such as the new Skogman Building and Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa expansion, signature infrastructure projects, such as the Cedar Lake restoration, Smokestack Bridge and the Eighth Avenue Bridge replacement, and whatever happens with 23 acres of city-owned real estate downtown primed for redevelopment.

TRANSFORMATIVE

The decade since the 2008 flood has been transformative for Cedar Rapids.

Rebuilt public infrastructure and amenities, such as the public library, Greene Square, the DoubleTree Hotel and Convention Center complex and McGrath Amphitheatre, have changed the face of downtown and how space is used. Downtown condos and apartments are filling up as quickly as they are built. Cyclists and pedestrians often outnumber motor vehicles.

Key industries doubled down: CRST relocated its headquarters to First Street SE, United Fire Group undertook a major expansion, and the likes of Quaker Oats and Cargill stood by their riverside operations.

‘A NEW COMMUNITY’

Cedar Rapids has changed in appearance certainly, but also in attitudes.

“Through a number of improvements we’ve made and the leadership, Cedar Rapids has changed, and changed for the better,” Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said. “Not just about physical changes, but in the confidence the community has gained. As people saw improvements, citizens gained more pride and the pride grew. Something happened along the way to keep the ball rolling well beyond the direct impact of the flood.”

While Cedar Rapids has come back “better and stronger,” Pomeranz said people should not forget the “tremendous loss to so many residents and businesses” from the flood.

“This is not the way Cedar Rapids was,” Pomeranz said. “This is a new community.”

WHAT NEXT?

 

The question is what is to come, and how to get there without as much federal money fueling major projects.

Steve Shriver, a local businessman who’s been instrumental in the revitalization of the New Bohemia District, said he feels the city is out of recovery mode and into “future mode.” He hopes the next phase of progress focuses on quality of life and recreation.

“I still hear of new business and new development, new developers working on projects in and around the downtown area,” Shriver said. “We are starting to reach the critical mass to where things happen with or without federal money.”

‘THINK BIG’

If the last 10 years has been getting Cedar Rapids ready again, the next 10 will be about cooperation with the private sector, addressing underutilized space and patience, said Tom Aller, the former Alliant Energy president who worked on five-year vision plans for Cedar Rapids in 2007, 2012 and 2017.

Aller said he sees the next decade as one of — to use a baseball metaphor — a lot of singles and doubles until a home run comes along.

The biggest opportunity ahead is the 23 acres of land under public control, Aller said. This includes 8 acres once reserved for the casino that never gained approval, land near the new Sinclair levee, a downtown lot near the Paramount Theatre, replacing the Five Seasons Parking Ramp, and parking lot 44 along the east side of the river between Eighth and 12th Avenues SE.

It’s a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to have so much paid-for land under city control, “just sitting there” ready to be redeveloped in the heart of the city, he said.

“Don’t’ be impatient with this land,” Aller said. “Think big. Think long term. Don’t settle for traditional type of buildings ... We need to think about it and get it right.”

FLOOD PROTECTION KEY

Max Freund / The Gazette

Steve Emerson and Fred Timko have been active developers near the river since the flood.

While Emerson and Timko, in separate interviews, see Cedar Rapids heading in the right direction, they agree flood protection is important to keeping the momentum going.

Strides have been made in recent years with flood protection, but the flood control system needs to be completed to realize the potential downtown, they said.

“As long as the flood wall keeps progressing, people will have confidence they will be protected,” Emerson said.

Timko added, “I don’t know if it would speed things up or not. That doesn’t bother many people. We see all kinds of stuff being built on the river. Flood protection would take that question off the table.”

At least a $450 million gap exists in paying for the estimated $750 million flood control system, according to city information. The system would protect property on the east and west side of the river in the event of a 2008 magnitude flood.

FUTURE GOALS

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart agrees with the importance of developing the land correctly and calls flood protection the next “game changer.”

If the city can continue to show progress, he said, voters might be willing to help pay for the flood wall once the street repair local-option sales tax expires.

Ahead, he points to an effort to stabilize core neighborhoods — called the Neighborhood Finance Corp. — as one of the pivotal initiatives. That project will incentivize homeowners to update their homes and ideal jump-start more widespread improvements to housing stock.

Connecting Ellis Boulevard to Sixth Street NW will introduce new traffic and open up development opportunities in the Northwest Neighborhood, Hart said. That area has struggled the most to bounce back from the 2008 flood.

And he sees the College District near Coe and Mount Mercy colleges as ripe for the sort of redevelopment seen in NewBo and Kingston.

BIG-PICTURE IDEAS

Aller was among a cross section of stakeholders who recently completed a five-year vision plan that the new Downtown Director Jesse Thoeming describes as “much more bold and overarching” than previous plans.

“This is not the way Cedar Rapids was. This is a new community.”

- Jeff Pomeranz

City Manager of Cedar Rapids

 

The plan includes big-picture items, such as embracing the river through ideas such as a river canal from Cedar Lake to the Cedar River, and removing the 5-in-1 Dam to expand recreational opportunities.

Far reaching concepts include “activating” May’s Island, which could include moving the Linn County Jail, turning the island into a signature public event space and constructing a pedestrian bridge from the island to both sides of the river.

Other big-picture items include repurposing privately held, underutilized spaces such as the “warehouse district” west of Third Street SE and north of Eighth Street SE, and several city blocks, such as the one with the Guaranty Bank building, the parking lots near the Skogman building, and the Third Street SE block between Ninth and 10th avenues SE.

One of the low-hanging fruit items is putting to use the underside of Interstate 380, or the “understate,” such as with a skate park or a dog park.

“If we want to continue to go in the direction of Des Moines,” Thoeming said, “we need to become a place people want to be.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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