116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
By The Gazette Editorial Board
Compared to many cities similar in size, Cedar Rapids is a latecomer to preserving and re-purposing many of its historic buildings. The wave of preservation efforts that took hold in many Iowa communities and across the country several decades ago never seemed to take hold here.
That could be changing.
Frustrated preservationists, worried the city is trading its unique character for parking spaces or other redevelopment purposes, are joining forces to try to keep Cedar Rapids' architectural and cultural treasures from being lost to history. Some developers and business owners, inspired by thriving historic centers in cities such as Omaha and Dubuque, are asking: Why can't we do that here?
But none of that will be enough if city leaders don't get serious about routinely incorporating historic preservation into planning and community development.
As the recent effort to save First Christian Church has shown, it will take much more than public, or even passing political, support to make sure the city's past is a part of its future.
In some ways, Cedar Rapids has only recently experienced the growing pains that gave rise to preservation practices in other cities decades ago.
During the 1960s, when many mid-sized cities were struggling with retail flight from downtown areas, Cedar Rapids retailers still were going strong, according to local historian Mark Stoffer Hunter.
Cedar Rapids city leaders didn't get around to forming a Historic Preservation Commission until the 1990s, when demolitions in Wellington Heights had neighbors worried about their historic neighborhood. The city created two small residential historic districts and charged the commission with making sure construction projects within those districts conformed to district guidelines.
In the late 1990s, the commission began surveying the city's historic properties - work that was just coming to completion when the 2008 flood hit, Hunter said. Since the flood, it has been in catch-up mode, trying to keep up as more historic structures face the wrecking ball.
The commission was given authority to impose a 60-day demolition review period for any building older than 50 years, to see if alternatives to demolition can be found, or at least salvage the materials. As a tool for preservation, the review period is too little, too late.
Sixty days isn't nearly enough time to contact owners, find investors and funding for preservation projects, Historic Preservation Commission chair Maura Pilcher told us. Property owners usually have made significant investments of time and money in a project by the time they file for a demolition permit.
“Once somebody already has it in their mind that they want to demolish a building, it's hard to tun them back,” she said.
But because preservation isn't incorporated into comprehensive planning, it can be difficult for preservationists to have input earlier in the process, when projects are more flexible. Absent designations as historic districts or landmarks, they would have no authority anyway.
It's time for that to change.
A common misperception about historic preservation is that it's somehow anti-development. But across the country and in Iowa, cities are finding that incorporating preservation into city planning has helped create vibrant residential and commercial centers with unique character - something that's particularly attractive to young professionals and businesses dependent on a creative workforce.
“It's that placemaking,” Pilcher told us. “Creating an identifiable area where you want to be.”
Take Dubuque - widely regarded as Iowa's poster child for historic preservation.
The city includes historic preservation in planning at every level, integrating it into the Unified Development Code, setting long-range preservation goals in the city's comprehensive plan and targeted area plans, which evaluate current conditions and prioritize actions for protecting and encouraging redevelopment of historic resources in targeted areas.
Many in Dubuque credit the town's livability and character for big economic scores such as IBM's decision to open a technology service delivery center and bring more than 1,000 jobs to the town. The company is not alone. In fact, a 2009 report concerning Iowa's Historic Preservation and Cultural and Entertainment District Tax Credit Program activity in Dubuque found much more robust growth in areas immediately surrounding historic properties from 2001 to 2007. including:
l A 9.7 percent average annual increase in property values, compared to 3.7 percent for other downtown properties.
l An annual 7.8 percent increase in retail, restaurant and hotel sales revenue, compared to 3.8 percent in other areas.
l An 8.9 percent annual increase in employment, compared with 2.8 percent in other areas.
The report's authors were careful to note that preservation alone doesn't seem to be enough to generate these kinds of numbers. But with proper planning, it can play a key role.
Cedar Rapids' First Christian Church building, 840 Third Ave. SE., is one example of how a better planning process could prevent lose-lose situations that pit preservation against progress.
Although the building, which is located in the city's Grant Wood Cultural District, is eligible for the National Historic Register, it has no local historic designation.
When St. Luke's Hospital purchased the church property in late 2010, the institution had every right to expect it could do with the property as its leaders saw fit. When preservationists learned the building was slated for demolition so the property could be used for additional parking for the Physicians' Clinic of Iowa medical pavilion, they were alarmed and protests began.
The ensuing conflict might well have been avoided had the church building been designated a local historic landmark, and the city had clear, consistently applied rules in place regarding the use of such properties. St. Luke's might have decided not to invest in the property after all, or perhaps to buy it with an eye toward putting it to some new use. The Historic Preservation Commission likely would have been involved in development proposals much earlier, providing input about development options and the building's potential for adaptive use.
Despite recent high-profile losses, preservationists say it's not too late for Cedar Rapids to prioritize historic properties and draft development guidelines that protect those historic structures that lend a sense of history and character to the town.
There are hundreds of historic structures that the city might consider worth protecting - two dozen remain in the city's medical district alone.
Designating historic areas and landmarks and drafting ordinances regulating their development would ensure that there are no more surprises to developers and preservationists - no more First Christian Church-type situations that unnecessarily pit progress against preservation. Instead, they could go forward together.
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