Finding our place

Lessons in creative placemaking

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What makes people love where they live, and why does it matter?

Those were the central questions driving researchers at Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of a three-year, 26 community study they called The Soul of the Community. Turns out, the answers they discovered were fairly simple, and profound.

What is it that makes people feel so loyal to and proud of their communities? Safety, education and public infrastructure is important. So are social offerings — events and activities and places to go. Aesthetics play a big role — interesting architecture, green spaces and public artwork that show community members’ pride and investment.

So does volunteerism and civic involvement; a feeling of openness and welcoming; the social networks between everyday people.

Why does it matter? Well, besides the quality of life benefits to individuals, researchers found that the more people are proud of and love the place where they live, the more that place thrives. Their enthusiasm has a direct effect on the local economy.

More than urban design, different from boosterism, placemaking is about building on our own history and identity to create that feeling of pride and excitement. And the idea is generating a lot of buzz in Cedar Rapids lately. Corporate and city leaders gathered a few weeks ago as part of an Employee Resource Group Consortium event to hear from nationally recognized placemaking expert Katherine Loflin. Working groups are meeting to discuss how to apply the principles of placemaking here.

Groups throughout Cedar Rapids have been practicing placemaking for years, even if they’ve stopped short of using the term. Development in and around the New Bohemia District is one example. More recently, transformations within the 55-block MedQuarter area have emphasized connections with residential neighborhoods, green space and public art. But, as placemaking efforts ramp up, Cedar Rapids need look no farther away than Dubuque for a case study showing that the process of placemaking can be as important as the end product in building community connectedness and pride.

REDISCOVERING A TREASURE

About a decade ago, Dubuque leaders were facing some of the same economic development and identity questions now circulating in Cedar Rapids. And while few would characterize ongoing projects and solutions there as necessarily easy, no one disputes their results.

Dubuque’s Historic Millwork District comprises about 14 city blocks between the downtown area and the Mississippi River. Not that long ago, a portion of 10th Street, which rests at the district’s heart, was a severely pitted gravel road flanked by abandoned warehouses.

“It wasn’t that this was a high-crime area,” explained Dan LoBianco, executive director of Dubuque Main Street, during a walking tour this week, “but more of a place that no one really went. No one had a reason to come here.”

The area, once a bustling manufacturing and millwork center, began to decline midway through the 20th Century as businesses closed or relocated. When a group of local artists took notice of the area in the early 2000s, little more than an adult theater was located there. Originally called the Warehouse District, the area drew communitywide attention in 2005, when a major art exhibition was held in one of the warehouses.

“In so many ways, the art community in Dubuque drove the discussion. They felt they had rediscovered the area — and in many ways they had,” LoBianco said. “Once the community turned its eyes on the area, more people began to be interested and everyone began to think about what this had been and what it could and should be.”

City officials, the art community, the Main Street organization and other community and corporate interests came to the table to form a broad vision: The district would connect historic downtown, ongoing riverfront development and the Washington District neighborhoods. It would be something new; an area where people could live, work and play. Highly livable and sustainable, this area would keep a clear link with the past even as it ventured forward.

INPUT AND INVESTMENT

It’s largely because of this connectivity and broad-based support that the district has been able to secure a variety public funding to move the project forward. Still about a decade away from realization, the Millwork District has already been transformed by a healthy mix of public and private investments. They have been able to tap into state and federal historic tax credit programs and the New Markets Tax Credit program. Because of the district’s broad foundation of support, leaders from several interest groups can reach out to state and federal lawmakers.

The circa-1880s Caracdo building occupying an entire block between Ninth and 10th streets on Jackson was christened the Schmid Innovation Center and opened in 2014. Using funding from the Iowa Department of Economic Development, 72 residential units were constructed. With more than $30 million invested, the building is also home to space for local artists, a non-profit hub and commercial and retail endeavors.

Windows leading to a previously dark and dreary basement were opened up, original pillars exposed and cleaned, and industrial implements that might otherwise have ended up in a landfill repurposed.

A $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation helped fund a complete street overhaul. Permeable pavers help manage stormwater runoff, energy-efficient lighting illuminates the district and original brickwork is incorporated into the design that also includes easy-mobility sidewalks. Funding from other grants have added ambience and helped the community realize its goal of honoring the past. Local artists and manufacturers participated in streetscaping efforts that included sidewalk medallions, benches, planters, public transportation shelters and waste receptacles.

In 2011, the community received one of only two National Endowment for the Arts grants for creative placemaking that have ever been awarded in Iowa. In part, the funds went to five local artist organizations working in the district to provide free art courses, a residence program, art exhibition and a “Faces of the District” visual window project.

Touring the Millwork District, former NEA chairman Rocco Landesman called the investment and emphasis on arts in the district a “poster child” for such development, which the agency believes is vital for local economies.

LoBianco agrees, admitting that it might have been easier and less expensive to demolish the district and start over, or raze a cornfield on the edge of town for new development.

“No doubt we could have done that. We could have. But, if we had, we simply would not have ended up with this,” he said, gesturing down a street that continues to incorporate railroad tracks that brought wood to the mills and where the late afternoon sun spotlights a block-long line of historic slogans and ornaments on the Innovation Center’s facade. Behind him, a man posed near an archway mural as a friend took his picture. Turning, LoBianco smiled. The impromptu photo shoot is par for the course.

“On prom night this area is incredibly busy,” he said. “Young people come from all over to take their photos here.”

BELONGING TO EVERYONE AND NO ONE

Ask LoBianco who owns the Historic Millwork District and his response will be a furrowed brow. That’s because it is simultaneously owned by no one and everyone.

Certain groups have taken the lead on specific projects, but the district as a whole is the product of overlapping ideas, inspiration, funding and expertise.

As Nancy Van Milligen, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, says, the project’s success is due in no small part to the fact that local groups set aside turf wars and egos in order to accomplish something greater than any single entity could have produced on its own.

“We learned to develop partnerships, we learned to gather together, to leave our egos at the door and create a vision and then implement that vision, make it a reality,” she wrote in the district’s strategic plan.

In Dubuque, progress came when groups stopped asking what was in it for them and instead asked, “What’s in it for us?”

FINDING A COMMUNITY’S SOUL

Walking through the Millwork District, that collaborative spirit is clear. There’s a vibrancy and unexpectedness contributed by local artists, who continue to hold a strong presence. There’s the pride and care taken by developers to incorporate the district’s history into mixed-use developments that are unique and indigenous to the town. The work of non-profit groups in the area adds educational opportunities and helps build community connections. Input from local environmentalists have helped create a sustainable space that treats taxpayer and resident dollars with respect.

Each piece has a practical purpose that can be felt as much as seen. Together, they create a harmonious experience that even a casual visitor can recognize, even if they find it difficult to describe: The neighborhood’s soul.

Working together, as many of the people involved in the Millwork District development will tell you, takes patience. LoBianco says having a strong, shared vision of the ultimate goal has helped. Everyone knows what they are working toward, and what’s at stake. Disagreements can be frustrating, and decisions can take longer than if a single entity was leading the way. But, if the end product benefits the developer, expands the tax base, reflects the larger community and makes residents proud, the extra time is well spent.

• Comments: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

LEARNING FORWARD

Join a discussion about placemaking projects in Cedar Rapids with Gazette columnist and editorial board member Lynda Waddington and representatives from the Employee Resource Group Consortium on Tuesday, Nov. 10, from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Library. The free event will be held in Whipple Auditorium and will feature local business owners, non-profit leaders and corporate representatives.

To register visit: thegazette.com/learningforward

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