Pilot project in Cedar Rapids aims to re-imagine alleys

Area behind Theatre Cedar Rapids, Bricks transformed

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Visitors to downtown Cedar Rapids this week can sample an effort to make the neighborhood friendlier and more useful.

“The idea is just to kind of shed some light on what these alleys can become in downtown Cedar Rapids,” said Ryan Anderson, a landscape architect for the Confluence architectural firm. “They’re fairly utilitarian, and just a little color can go a long way.”

Located in the L-shaped alley between Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, and Bricks Bar & Grill, 320 Second Ave. SE., the Alley Transformation Pilot Project includes a mural on the wall of the U.S. Bank branch and such low-cost features as temporary tree plantings, furniture fashioned from wooden shipping pallets and even games like cornhole, checkers and giant Jenga.

A key feature is a covered rack for bicycles in the adjoining Convention Center parking ramp and garage. Park Cedar Rapids crews removed concrete and cable traffic barriers to allow cyclists easy access off the Cedar River Trail.

Staff at Bricks are maintaining and managing the games through this weekend. Most traces will be removed Monday, but a similar project is in the works for next spring.

“For sure, there will be another project and likely a student-led one,” said Casey Prince, downtown executive director for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. “They could go in any direction.”

Students at Iowa BIG, the project-based high school program for students from Cedar Rapids, Prairie and Linn-Mar, helped plan and install the project. Over the winter, about a dozen BIG students, who earn credits based on their community projects, will work with Anderson to assess what works and doesn’t work to develop the next installation.

“Possibly a permanent one, that’s the dream,” said Molly Sofranko, Iowa BIG art and design teacher. “This one is just kind of a way to see what the end would look like, and I think they were really pleased.”

Confluence approached the city and Iowa BIG as part of the company’s community service program.

“We worked alongside Iowa BIG to provide them kind of a yearlong curriculum which could end up with them designing their own alley in the spring,” said Anderson, who will serve as project manager. “Confluence is going to be kind of the professional consultant. We’re looking at hosting a lot of their meetings here in our office.”

Planning and design includes identifying where the next installation will go, then working with the city on permits. Student designers will take into account factors such as lighting and the installation’s susceptibility to vandalism, Sofranko said.

The goal of what Prince calls an exercise in “tactical urbanism” is to find new public uses for the city owned alleys while maintaining their usefulness for businesses along them. The overall effort includes rethinking how trash Dumpsters are placed or shared and more frequent cleaning schedules.

“I do think there’s an opportunity to repurpose that space and have it be not so much of a blight,” he said.

“It could transform the public’s perception of what a downtown alley can mean for the community,” said Anderson.

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