Cedar Rapids Council tempers its high-rise hopes

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In the end, will the “wow” be more powerful than the “whoa?”

The “wow” is One Park Place, a 28-story high-rise development pitched for a piece of city-owned property downtown, along with some adjacent parcels. It would be the city’s tallest building, with a grocery store, parking garage, 60 apartments, 30 condos, 100 hotel rooms and a rooftop restaurant. Its price tag would top $100 million.

The “whoa” is its developer’s request for $23 million worth of city tax breaks in the form of upfront cash. That’s a big chunk of change, money the city would have to raise through bonds paid back with property taxes eventually generated by the project.

The Cedar Rapids City Council voted Tuesday evening to hire a third party to analyze the feasibility of the project and how city incentives might be structured. City officials seem pretty reluctant to put a pile of cash into the project up front, so the council hopes this analysis might chart a more comfortable path.

To the council’s credit, there was very little cheerleading. No one is making opening night dinner reservations for the 28th floor.

“This is one of the unique opportunities for a project we haven’t seen in a long time in Cedar Rapids,” council member Kris Gulick said, before asking what effect a new hotel would have on the city-owned DoubleTree. According to city staff, more downtown rooms are needed to attract some big conventions to the convention complex.

“I don’t want to see us get into something where they have to come back to council and need more money,” council member Ann Poe said. Later she said, “It’s a beautiful building.”

Council member Pat Shey said he’s “blown away” by the project. But then swiftly mentioned the Westdale development, where beautiful pictures and prospects have changed.

The “wow” is powerful with this one. One Park Place would redefine downtown. Imagine the intersection of Third Avenue SE and First Street SE, with One Park Place, the Alliant Tower, the new CRST headquarters and a reinvented Smulekoff’s building, with riverfront improvements tied to flood protection a stone’s throw away.

“It’s going to be a beautiful project,” council member Justin Shields said. “I don’t want to sound like someone who is on TV a lot.”

He’s referring of course to Donald Trump, the loud, orange harbinger of our shaky, uncertain times. And it’s uncertainty that must temper all that “wow.”

Imagine pumping a pile of public bucks into a project only to see it jolted by economic turbulence and shrink before our eyes as some of its pieces no longer make sense. Imagine the city’s bond rating taking another dent. We’ll see what the third-party analysis says about the project and the city’s risk.

But if I had to place a bet, I’d wager that the council will find a way to make it happen. There will be public incentives and public risk. There may be cash up front. It could mean the sort of gut-check council vote it took to close Second Avenue for PCI’s pavilion and buy the hotel.

So, eventually, wow will win out over whoa. Still, I’d hold off on those 28th floor reservations.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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