Cedar Rapids should approve Crestwood Ridge proposal

CommonBond Communities given high marks by other cities

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With staff approval in one hand and commission rezoning denial in the other, members of the Cedar Rapids City Council soon will decide the fate of an affordable housing complex on Edgewood Road.

The proposed Crestwood Ridge apartment complex project includes 45 mixed-income housing units, parking, sidewalks, bus stop improvements and green space. If approved, the three-story building would be at the intersection of Edgewood and Crestwood roads, on city-owned vacant land at 1200 Edgewood Road NW between Westgate Apartments and Cedar Rapids Fire Station 3.

Thirty-six of the 45 units would serve residents who earn 60 percent of the area’s median income. Four units would be market-rate. The final five would be reserved as supportive housing units for previously homeless families, with on-site assistance provided by staff from the Willis Dady Emergency Shelter. All of the units will be permanent rental homes, not transitional or emergency housing.

Some neighbors have argued — strongly — that the project is not a good fit for the location.

We’ve researched their concerns and found them to be unfounded or easily addressed. More than that, we found ample reason to believe that Crestwood Ridge will be a well-managed asset to the community and a much-needed addition in Linn County’s fight against chronic homelessness.

City council should waste no time in approving it.

SOURCE OF CONTROVERSY

Crestwood Ridge will be a partnership between Willis Dady and Minnesota-based CommonBond Communities. The project has already been awarded $8 million in housing tax credits from the Iowa Finance Authority as part of a demonstration pilot program. The grant is expected to fund about 90 percent of the project.

Until late April, when the project came before the Cedar Rapids Planning Commission for a routine rezoning, there was no evidence of community sentiment against it.

CommonBond sent out notices to neighbors and held a sparsely attended community meeting about the project in early February. In March, CommonBond applied for the grant from the Iowa Housing Authority with the support of the city. A rezoning report to the planning commission authored by city staff was favorable to the project.

“The proposed development is consistent with characteristics of the surrounding area and the goals and objectives of the City Council and the Comprehensive Plan,” notes the report, which found no cause for concern.

But owners of property across Edgewood and Crestwood roads, primarily residents of single-family homes, began to speak out when they received notice of the proposed rezoning.

A petition with 214 signatures was delivered to members of the planning commission, city council and Mayor Ron Corbett. It questioned whether the city and developer had considered the project’s impact on traffic, the sanitary sewer, water runoff, emergency services, the neighborhood elementary school and the area as a whole.

At least one email message sent to the city questioned the quality of residents the proposed complex would bring into the neighborhood: “… upon doing research about the company that wants to build an apartment complex across the street from me, I found they only build low income housing. … I do not wish to have low income and homeless housing mere feet from my front door. Who can I contact to make sure my voice is heard?”

It was these types of questions and concerns, according to Carletta Knox-Seymour, who served on the planning commission at the time but recused herself on this proposal because she was also a new member of the Willis Dady board, that led the commission to vote 6-to-1 against the rezoning. The final consensus, she told us, was that the project was “not the right fit.”

PROJECT REALITIES

Although we can sympathize with residents who may have concerns about the impact Crestwood Ridge might have on traffic and stormwater management, our research found those concerns to be unwarranted or typically and routinely addressed later in the development process.

Fire Chief Mark English, for instance, told us that emergency vehicles and residents easily can share Westgate Drive to access the fire station and apartment parking lot. The city, he said, has plans to install traffic lights in the area that will automatically give emergency vehicles the right of way.

The city’s own traffic data shows the development will have a minimal impact on traffic — estimating an increase of 1.5 percent, which is an additional eight to 10 cars per hour during peak times. That’s well below the increase of at least 50 cars per hour that would trigger a full-scale traffic study.

Stormwater systems planned by CommonBond will control a 100-year event with no runoff, mitigation which is expected to actually improve conditions for property owners downstream.

For those residents who have said they are concerned about walkability and the safety of children who may be living in Crestwood Ridge, a review of the proposal should be enough to dispel any fears. The preliminary site plan has the footprints of the parking lot and building using less than 60 percent of the site, leaving the remainder for green space and designated play areas.

Green space and sidewalks are planned between the apartment complex and the two adjacent roadways. Landscaping in those areas is intended to discourage play alongside the street and add additional buffer between the building, the street and the single-family dwellings across the road. A play area will be located behind the building.

And as far as the question of density, the development’s 45 housing units on nearly two acres produces a density of 22.5 units per acre. Westgate Apartments to the north, which has been described as being more open and perceived as less dense, has 72 units on a 2.9 acre site, a density of 24.8 units per acre.

Cedar Rapids Development Services Manager Joe Mailander said the parcel is “an ideal location for higher density residential development.”

EXCEPTIONAL PARTNER

If the city went looking for a partner organization on affordable housing needs, it is doubtful they could pick one with a better track record than CommonBond.

The organization is the Midwest’s largest non-profit provider of affordable housing and has been in the business since 1971. The group manages more than 5,500 apartments and townhomes in cities across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

We reached out to several of those cities and asked government officials about the property manager. We wanted to know of any significant issues or serial complaints surrounding the properties and if CommonBond had acted in good faith.

From St. Paul, Minn. to Des Moines to Waterloo to Milwaukee, Wisc., city officials and law enforcement responded with high praise. They told us that CommonBond managed its properties well, worked with the community, and kept its promises.

In Waterloo, CommonBond received a grant last month from Cedar Valley United Way for Education and Advancement Program services provided to 130 residents at Unity Square. The program provides on-site employment services, financial coaching and assistance connecting with other agencies.

In Des Moines, a destitute victim of domestic violence and her son connected with CommonBond two years ago. The family is not only stable now, but launched a small business. The mom, who once needed help, now volunteers to help others.

In Marshalltown, CommonBond partnered with a host of public and private organizations to restore and repurpose a historic property in the heart of downtown. The Tallcorn offers 49 mixed-income one- and two-bedroom units as well as several common area amenities like a computer lab, fitness room, community space and library. Street-level space is reserved for commercial and retail storefronts, and the Hotel Tallcorn’s historic ballroom is once again an active community and event space.

Not only did CommonBond spearhead the redevelopment of the blighted property, sparking subsequent local development, but the organization and project partner architects were honored by the state in 2014 for their commitment to the community and its history.

communitywide benefit

No one, not even residents who petitioned against Crestwood Ridge, have suggested Cedar Rapids is flush with affordable housing. Rental vacancy rates in the city hover around 2 percent, and more than 40 percent of area renters are cost-burdened. Many families remain only one major financial crisis away from homelessness.

This isn’t just a problem for those families; housing insecurity and homelessness in our community affects us all, leading to increased cost for medical, law enforcement, education, child care and housing programs. People in affordable and stable homes have better mental and physical outcomes, and perform better at their jobs. Children do better academically, resulting in less nuisance activity and higher graduation rates.

Families with affordable housing contribute more to the local economy, and are empowered to give back.

Developments like the CommonBond proposal are a critical element in the fight for housing security and stability that we all benefit from.

Neighboring property owners have every right to question how new development will impact their lives. Drainage, traffic and density will impact all residents, including those who would live in proposed developments.

But when those concerns are proven to be unfounded or met with offers of mitigation, city officials have a responsibility to look beyond the noisy chorus of “not in my backyard.”

Crestwood Ridge is a well-considered and well-supported project that is very well suited to the proposed location on a thoroughfare street, near a bus stop, close to retail and schools.

There is a critical need for this project. Today, Linn County has only eight supportive-living housing units for the public. Needed almost as urgently are the project’s roughly three dozen affordable units. Small, multi-income housing projects such as this are far preferable to a large developments concentrated in one or a few areas of the city.

The evidence is clear. City councilors must be equally clear in their approval and support of Crestwood Ridge.

• Gazette editorials reflect the consensus opinion of The Gazette Editorial Board. Share your comments and ideas with us: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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