Cedar Rapids looks to subsidize ramp in 'over-parked' MedQuarter

Officials say parking surplus is too far-flung for a PCI expansion

The MedQuarter Regional Medical District including St. Luke’s Hospital, Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa Medical Pavilion, and Mercy Medical Center in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The MedQuarter Regional Medical District including St. Luke’s Hospital, Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa Medical Pavilion, and Mercy Medical Center in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids taxpayers are being asked to help underwrite a 450-stall parking ramp for an expansion of Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa in an area a 2013 study said is flush with parking — but that, officials say, is inconvenient for this project.

A 2013 study prepared by the Lakota Group for the MedQuarter, a medical district anchored by PCI, Mercy Medical Center and UnityPoint-St. Luke’s Hospital near downtown, found the district has 8,250 off-street parking spaces and another 700 on-street spaces, or more than enough to satisfy the parking need of 8,100 spaces.

“With limited exception, stakeholders did not identify a shortage of parking within the MedQuarter as a major concern,” the report stated. “Many think that the amount of surface parking negatively impacts the aesthetic character of the district. With so much parking available, some are concerned that the MedQuarter is over-parked.”

When it meets at 4 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 101 First St. SE, the Cedar Rapids City Council will consider whether to support a development agreement between the city and PCI, PCI MM Investors II LLC, PCI Parking Garage Inc., and St. Luke’s Hospital to develop a medical mall and parking ramp.

The study raises the question of why the city would underwrite more parking in the area.

Bruce Nesmith, a Coe College political science professor who follows city land-use issues and serves on the steering committee for Rezone Cedar Rapids, said the concern is that difficulty parking could sour customers on traveling to the area for care. But he questioned the wisdom of investing public money.

“My perception is the city has a difficult time saying ‘no’ to major employers,” Nesmith said. “This is another case where the city is weighing the cost of the contribution against the potential loss of a big employer.”

Back in 2010, for example, the city set aside community objections and agreed to close part of Second Avenue SE to accommodate the PCI campus, he noted.

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Nesmith said there’s no need for more parking there now and no guarantee the need will exist in the future.

“Leveling huge swathes of an area near downtown for parking doesn’t help the city’s tax base, it doesn’t make the environment more interesting or vibrant,” he said. “While it does help someone coming from out of town, there’s a lot of things it doesn’t do. It doesn’t help affordable housing.”

Plans to expand the PCI clinic at 10th Street and Second Avenue SE have changed since first announced this year.

On the table is a $28 million, 98,000-square-foot medical office facility on 10th Street SE; a 450-stall parking ramp west of the office building; a covered, at-grade walkway connecting the new parking ramp with the new facility; and a skywalk connection from an existing parking ramp to new building. The expansion is expected to create 200 new jobs.

Cedar Rapids would pay $8.27 million of the $9.5 million parking ramp cost through bond proceeds, which would be repaid over time by increased taxes generated from the improvements — a mechanism known as tax increment financing, or TIF.

The property is expected to have an assessed value of $17 million by 2020 and $27 million by 2029.

In recent years, several old structures in the MedQuarter have been demolished in favor of parking lots, including the First Christian Church, 840 Third Ave. SE. An overhead map shows parking lots account for well over half of MedQuarter land.

The new parking ramp would replace an 1885-built home a historian calls the “Clark mansion.” The rest of the expansion would replace a surface parking lot.

Phil Wasta, executive director of the MedQuarter, said parking ramps could create development opportunities where sprawling surface parking lots exist, which in turn would increase the tax base. Also, he noted, patients need nearby parking and the Lakota study didn’t explore parking needs as they relate to businesses.

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“If you are going in for an appointment, people are not going to walk blocks in the elements,” Wasta said. “It needs to be conducive to patients who need to be treated.”

Jennifer Pratt, the community development director for Cedar Rapids, said the 2013 study focused on the abundance of surface parking, which is different from parking ramps. And a parking space near Mercy, she said for example, wouldn’t benefit a person visiting PCI.

“That is why projects like this help the situation because they alleviate the need for expansive parking lots,” Pratt said. “That is what needs to happen in an urban area to make it highly effective.”

While the city didn’t study the area’s parking capacity, it did study the needs of the project, including parking, and the proposal aligns with the need, she said.

PCI did not return a message seeking comment Friday, but an official said Thursday the parking is needed for staff and patients.

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