United Fire looks to demolish two downtown buildings, expand Cedar Rapids footprint

Historic Preservation Commission grants one permit, puts hold on another

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CEDAR RAPIDS — One of the headline businesses in Cedar Rapids — United Fire Group — plans to demolish two recently acquired vacant buildings on Second Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids and expand its footprint yet again within the next four to five years.

The Historic Preservation Commission, on Oct. 12, approved a demolition permit for 209 Second St. SE, but put a 60-day hold on demolition of an adjacent structure at 213 Second St. SE., although it, too, is expected to come down.

“It looks like almost 85 percent of the facade has been replaced by cinder block siding,” Mark Stoffer Hunter, historian for The History Center and chairman of the commission, said of the 213 building. “There’s not much integrity left. It would have to be an almost complete rebuild rather then a restore.

“That strikes a big blow for preservation,” he added.

United Fire declined to comment on its plans and to let The Gazette in the buildings this week.

ANOTHER EXPANSION

The plans — however undefined — signal another expansion of the footprint of one of Cedar Rapids’ largest companies.

“They are basically landlocked, and their only other option is to leave downtown,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said. “This shows they are committed to being in downtown Cedar Rapids.”

United Fire, under its real estate arm, United Real Estate Holdings LCC, paid Smulekfoff Investment Co. $270,000 for 209 Second St. SE on April 15, 2016, and Lipsky Family LTD Partnership $255,000 for 213 Second St. SE on Sept. 20, 2016.

In 2014 and 2015, the company, which has 582 of its 1,176 employees based in downtown Cedar Rapids, paid more than $4 million for three properties on First and Second streets SE, and is investing $28.4 million to restore the 103-year-old American Building at First Avenue and Second Street SE.

The company now owns the entire block bound by First and Second streets SE and First and Second avenues SE, and two-thirds of the block on the west side of Second Street SE between Second and Third avenues SE.

Corbett said he doesn’t know what the plans are, but pointed out that although United Fire is selling off its life insurance division, they have been acquiring smaller divisions over the years, which has helped increase downtown employment. He said he expects the company to continue to grow, which is a good thing for downtown.

“We are lucky to have them,” Corbett said. Writing on the Walls

The one-story 209 building, which was most recently Downtown Drug, was built in 1967 and lacks historic significance, but the two-story 213 building was built in 1900 and some historic elements exist, but not enough to save the building, Stoffer Hunter said.

Both buildings — located on the block between Second and Third avenues SE, along side Cobble Hill Eatery and Dispensary and Ruby’s Pizzeria — are boarded up.

May’s Drug occupied the 213 building from 1931 to 1980 and later Legends nightclub, Stoffer Hunter said. A multipurpose room and later a warehouse occupied a large open area on the second floor, but it has been vacant for 70 years, he said. Left behind is graffiti written on walls by May’s employees, he said.

“This was from the World War II era,” Stoffer Hunter said. “There’s all of these messages about going off to war.”

The walls can’t be removed, but historians would like to photograph and document the writing before demolition proceeds, he said. Interior windows and skylights also could potentially be saved, he said.

United Fire has been supportive of historic preservation and committed to honoring the historic context of the area when it rebuilds, he said.

FUTURE USE

United Fire plans to use the ground of the 213 building as a surface parking lot while identifying plans to rebuild in four to five years, Franklin Rainbolt, United Fire maintenance supervisor, told the commission last week, according to Stoffer Hunter.

The 209 property could be incorporated into renovation of the adjacent Security Building, 203 Second St. SE, which United Fire also owns, but the long-term use of the 213 property is “TBD,” he told the commission, commission member B.J. Hobart said. United Fire is cognizant about how the look of the properties affect downtown, she said.

“They were very aware and sensitive to the fact they didn’t want a gaping hole there or a parking lot that has no aesthetic value,” she said, noting the parking lot would only be temporary.

Stoffer Hunter said after the 60-day hold expires United Fire could demolish the 213 building, although the matter will likely be discussed again before the 60-day mark. It’s unclear how soon the demolition will occur, he said.

“They aren’t in a rush to tear it down,” he said.

Emily Breen, a spokeswoman with the city of Cedar Rapids, said demolition permits typically have a 30-day shelf life, but the city would work with larger projects to accommodate timelines as needed. The city doesn’t have any regulations to prohibit United Fire from leaving the space vacant until it is ready to build, she said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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