Cedar Rapids neighborhoods reinvestment & renewal
CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s easy to measure the damage of 2008’s record-shattering flood in numbers, whether it’s the Cedar River’s 31.12-foot crest on June 13, the nearly 7,200 properties damaged or the approximately $5.4 billion price tag.
What’s a bit more difficult to grasp is how the most devastating flood in Cedar Rapids history impacted some of the community’s oldest communities.
From Time Check in the northwest, Czech Village, Taylor and Kingston Village in the southwest, and Oak Hill Jackson and New Bohemia in the southeast — residents, business owners and city officials have spent a decade repairing and rebuilding, attempting, where possible, to retain long-standing features while also embracing change.
“When we put ourselves back together, we resisted the temptation to put it back exactly the way it was,” said Rob Davis, the city’s flood control program manager. “We continue to look for better ways to do things. It’s really become kind of a culture after 10 years of that. “We didn’t just settle. We, as a community, strove for much better.”
As communities along the Cedar River rebuilt, they have done so at differing speeds. While New Bohemia and Czech Village have seen considerable boosts to their business and cultural offerings in the last 10 years, redevelopment of Time Check — which lost nearly half of its homes in post-flood buyouts — has been at a much slower pace.
A plan to rebuild
Floodwaters touched more than 10 square miles, or approximately 14 percent, of Cedar Rapids. Of the 1,126 city blocks flooded, more than half — 561 blocks — were severely damaged.
The recovery began as soon as the river subsided. The first step was developing a plan that took into account public input, community needs and flood protection, Davis said.
“None of these work by themselves. They all have to work as a team of improvements. The neighborhoods, the housing, the flood control system, the parks, the neighborhood amenities,” he said. “I think it all started off pretty well with that vision.”
Using federal dollars, the city bought out more than 1,000 flood-damaged properties up and down the river through a voluntary property acquisition program.
Some properties were returned to private developers for housing or businesses, while others along the Cedar River were reserved for greenway space or future flood protections, said Jennifer Pratt, the city’s community development director.
"If we wanted to encourage people to reinvest in the community, we had to assure them we were going to have long-term flood protection,” she said.
NewBo blossoms but may be pricing out some residents
Michael and Lynette Richards have been living in the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood since 1999. Their ties to Metro High School, where Lynette was a counselor for 15 years, and Jane Boyd Community House, where Michael was once executive director, date to the 1970s.
The neighborhood is bounded by Third Avenue SE, Mount Vernon Road SE, 19th Street SE and the Cedar River. It includes the New Bohemia District, Metro High School and the surrounding neighborhood.
The river’s crest caught many of his neighbors off guard, recalled Michael Richards, former president of the Oak Hill Jackson Neighborhood Association.
“It happened so fast and so furious,” he said.
But when rebuilding began, community-developed plans for an Oak Hill Jackson cultural district — crafted before the flood — helped speed the creation of what is now commonly called NewBo.
“The reinvestment after the flood really accelerated that development. It was kind of primed for it,” Pratt said.
In 2007, before the flood, the NewBo area was home to 229 residential properties, 55 tax-exempt lots, 107 commercial properties and eight industrial sites.
Last year, the area had comparable numbers of residential properties — 230 — and commercial properties — 108. Tax-exempt lots, though, have more than doubled to 117, reflecting buyouts, as have industrial sites, 19, reflecting development.
Property values have climbed significantly. In 2007, the area’s property was valued at nearly $42 million. That had increased to almost $77 million by 2017 — an 83 percent increase. The median parcel value has increased from about $37,800 to $52,500.
In the surrounding residential area, programs like ROOTs, or Rebuilding Ownership Opportunities Together, helped people build more than 850 homes.
“There was a lot of advanced work — both commercial in New Bohemia and in the residential areas of Oak Hill — that kind of set the ground for rapid action right after the flood,” Michael Richards said.
However, Lynette Richards, Oak Hill Jackson Neighborhood Association’s current president, said the development has been a bit of a double-edged sword.
“The biggest positive is also the biggest negative,” she said, noting that rising property values made it difficult for many low-income homeowners to stay in the growing neighborhood.
“So, yes, it’s wonderful that there are new homes,” Michael Richard said. “But it’s also important to understand there were people who were displaced and never got back into homeownership.”
Taylor Neighborhood, Czech Village see homes and businesses return, grow
Steve Nylin, president of the Taylor Area Neighborhood Association, has lived in the neighborhood for almost 30 years.
The 2008 deluge flooded a large swath of the west-side neighborhood, including Taylor Elementary, 720 Seventh Ave. SW, which was a neighborhood hub, Nylin said.
“(The flood) covered about two-thirds of our neighborhood,” he said. “It was mostly residential, but some businesses were hit. Some of them bounced back rather quickly, while others took a while.”
The nonprofit Matthew 25, he said, played a pivotal role in the neighborhood’s rebuilding.
The recovery of Czech Village along 16th Avenue SW, one of the city’s oldest commercial districts, has been touted as a recovery success, though the district’s assessed value has yet to recover to preflood levels.
Pratt said one of the biggest moments — and one that inspired future projects in Czech Village — came in the summer of 2011 when workers from Patterson Structural Movers slowly and carefully moved the Czech & Slovak Museum & Library 480 feet, from the riverbank across the street and up onto a new foundation, where it sits today, overlooking the river.
“It was a huge statement,” Pratt said. “It sets that bar higher. Nothing is off the table.”
From 2007 to 2017, the Czech Village area saw a drop in the number of residences from 816 to 686, while also seeing an increase in tax-exempt plots — those bought out by the city after the flood — from 65 to 207. Commercial lots dropped from 106 in 2007 to 70 last year; industrial sites increased from seven to 10.
Explore the neighborhoods.
Browse an interactive visualization of all flooded neighborhoods, and how their property values have changed in the last decade.
Property value dropped from $94 million in 2007 to around $87 million in 2017. The median property value dropped from about $81,000 to $79,000.
Nylin said he has been encouraged by the development he sees in the Taylor neighborhood, which includes Czech Village and portions of Kingston Village, site of several new residential projects.
Between 2007 and 2017, the number of residential properties in the Kingston Village area has increased from 100 properties to 153.
“Based on what I’ve been seeing in the last few years, it sure seems like we’ve had more new construction both in single and multifamily housing,” Nylin said. “Little by little, we continue to see more homes.”
The Kingston Village area, which lies between the west-side Time Check and Czech Village neighborhoods, saw its tax-exempt lots increase from 34 to 72 and commercial lots drop from 116 to 54 between 2007 and 2017. The area had three industrial properties in 2007 and last year had none.
But, in the same span, total property value increased from about $26 million to more than $41 million. The median property value dropped slightly. from just below $58,000 to $56,100.
Time Check recovery slower, but greenway holds promise
Al Pierson, owner of Pierson’s Flower Shop and Greenhouses, 1800 Ellis Blvd., can stand in the flower shop that’s been in his family for 90 years and, by stretching his hand in the air, show how high floodwater got 10 years ago.
It helps that he’s tall because the tip of his finger reaches about 8 feet off the ground.
“The only thing that didn’t get flooded in here was the ceiling. We lost everything,” said Pierson, president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association.
The Time Check neighborhood, which makes up the bulk of that association, is bounded roughly by the Cedar River, First Avenue West, 13th Street NW and a little north of Q Avenue NW.
As with other neighborhoods, the Time Check neighborhood saw a number of city buyouts — which provided homeowners 107 percent of the home’s pre-flood assessed value.
“It didn’t make everybody whole. Everybody got hurt,” Pierson said. “I think most who moved on would agree that it worked out all right, but I’m sure there are some who would not agree, for various reasons.”
Pratt said many of the acquired properties along the river are reserved for greenway space and flood protection.
“Both flood protection and having that greenway is going to be transformational for that neighborhood,” Pratt said. “We are very excited for what that will mean. There are a ton of positives in that area.”
But, compared to other city neighborhoods, Pierson said, Time Check has a ways to go in terms of development and community atmosphere.
“What was rebuilt, what’s here, is in great shape, but ... we have empty lots,” he said. “We don’t have the sense of community that we had before because we don’t have the neighbors.”
In 2007, the Time Check area had 30 tax-exempt properties, 94 commercial sites and nine industrial sites.
In 2017, the number of tax-exempt sites had exploded to 430 — mostly along the river. Commercial properties had dropped to 31, with four industrial sites.
The biggest change has been the loss of more than 500 homes — from 1,623 in 2007 to 1,092 last year.
Like Czech Village, Time Check area’s property value dropped from just under $152 million in 2007 to around $113 million last year. The median property value remained consistent at around $75,000.
Pierson said he sees promise in the neighborhood’s recreational amenities, the greenway space and future development along Ellis Boulevard NW.
In addition, West Side Rising, a memorial and plaza space currently under construction near O Avenue NW, is slated for a June 13 ribbon cutting.
“We see that as a catalyst for revitalization of the neighborhood,” Pierson said. “I think it’s going to give people a hope that things are happening here. I think it will give impetus to other developers and people who can say, ‘Hey, people are coming back here. We can come back.’ ”
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