CEDAR RAPIDS — A planned public art memorial dubbed “West Side Rising” could serve as a beacon for revitalization for west-side neighborhoods hardest hit and slowest to recover from the 2008 flood.
Dozens of vacant lots sprawl as far as the eye can see where houses with yards once stood and empty storefronts remain along key west-side streets, such as Ellis Boulevard NW and O Avenue NW.
Still, local leaders say, a steady drumbeat of plans are in the works, promising the area’s future is not as bleak as it may seem.
“What the memorial is saying is the west side is coming back,” said Gary Hinzman, a former Cedar Rapids police chief and judicial district director helping coordinate the memorial. “The ‘west side rising’ theme applies to the whole west side.”
The $250,000, 26-foot-tall sculpture with a 30-by-30-foot footprint is planned in a vacant grassy plot northwest of Sixth Street NW and O Avenue NW. It pays tribute to the hundreds of destroyed homes and foreshadows recovery in the blue-collar Time Check neighborhoods that historically supplied workers for railroads and staple industries.
“The idea came from many individuals in the neighborhood, who lost their homes, lost their sense of identity because of the loss of the neighborhood,” said Al Pierson, owner of Pierson’s Flower Shop & Greenhouses, 1800 Ellis Blvd. NW, and president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association. “While we’ve rebuilt over 100 homes in the area, people felt they lost where they’ve grown up.”
The memorial is planned to sit on a concrete foundation in a new plaza where people can congregate and reflect, akin to a smaller version of Greene Square, he said.
Plans call for completion by next June, the ninth anniversary of the flood, Pierson said.
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A fundraising campaign is planned to raise the money needed to commission and install the sculpture. Several businesses have expressed interest in being a part of the project, organizers said.
In the memorial, tall stainless-steel frames represent houses, including one tipped over as if by the flood, and blue-faced clocks sit in the peaks.
“It was meant to memorialize the resilience of the people on the west side,” said Jim Novak, of the Novak Design Group, who designed the piece. “The stainless steel frames really represent ghost images of the homes that were lost and, finally, the blue features represent the blue porch lights of people returning to their homes after the flood.”
Neighbors such Zechariah De La Vergne, 29, who has lived on the west side his entire life, illustrate anxiousness about the future. He said he favors “anything to help bring back the area.”
“We have a great neighborhood,” he said, while sitting Monday on his front porch along Ellis Boulevard. “The problem is we have all this land over here, and nobody will tell us what they are going to do with it.”
O Avenue eventually will be the main street passing through the west-side flood levee, a gateway into the neighborhood, so “West Side Rising” is to be on display in a high-traffic area, Pierson said. The memorial will be set back so people can appreciate it as they pass by, he said.
The sculpture is envisioned as part of a larger plan on the dry side of the west-side levee.
Cedar Rapids City Council member Ann Poe is pushing for other pieces of west-side redevelopment by the 10th anniversary of the flood, including the plaza and O Avenue gateway.
Poe envisions the plaza as a grid re-creating the streets and neighborhoods of the hardest-hit areas with names and addresses. While changing designs for the levee and federal rules for rebuilding in flood zones have slowed redevelopment, seeing a finished gateway should signal to developers the levee is coming.
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“We need to get some things rolling over there,” Poe said. “My view is if neighbors and developers see there is going to be a levee — if we start with the gateway at O Avenue in and out of the flood zone into the neighborhood — it gives people hope and gets developers going.”
Poe has asked city staff to inventory what city property is available for redevelopment, particularly along Ellis Boulevard. A discussion about her request is planned for today’s meeting of the City Council’s development committee at 3 p.m. at City Hall.
Pierson hopes West Side Rising also reflects hope for the area. For example, he hopes to see more houses built, a return of mom-and-pop shops and a resurgence of the old neighborhood feel. Not only is it on the horizon, he sees progress toward that end, he said.
“There a lot of little things happening people don’t realize,” he said.
Neighbors have been meeting with city officials to create a Northwest Neighborhood Action plan fleshing out a walkable neighborhood with bike trails. A condominium complex has been proposed, and a new community hub for adults and kids — the Northwest Recreation Center — should be fully open later this summer. It replaces a west- side recreation center lost in the flood.
Pierson and Hinzman said they want to see the west side once again be an attractive destination in the community. Neighbors want recovery, but they also want to be deliberate so new development reinforces the culture on the west side, Hinzman and Pierson said.
“They are anxious to move forward, but they also want to move slowly,” Hinzman said. “They want to make sure what goes in there blends with their neighborhood and community.”