Cedar Rapids receives OK for some development in flood plain

Rebuilding will be allowed in some historic, commercial areas

Don Karr
Don Karr

 City Hall here has convinced state officials who oversee the spending of federal and state flood-recovery dollars to tweak a rule that affects redevelopment in four historic or commercial areas even though they are in the 100-year flood plain.

Those areas are New Bohemia; Czech Village; the area directly across the Cedar River from downtown dubbed “West Village” or “Kingston Village” for now; and a proposed commercial corridor among Ellis Boulevard NW.

The rule change will make it easier to attract investment in the four areas, which have been identified by the City Council as key commercial development spots in the core of the city.

“This makes it 110,000 percent better,” City Council member Don Karr, chairman of the council’s Flood Recovery Committee, said of the rule change. “We can redevelop for now without flood protection, and then we’re still looking for flood protection. I’ve not given up on flood protection.”

Mayor Ron Corbett applauded the Iowa Economic Development Authority for amending the existing rules, which had been approved by the state and city after the 2008 flood, but which have made it particularly difficult to redevelop on newly vacant commercial lots in historic and commercial areas where flood-damaged property had been bought out and demolished.

“One of our goals has been to get property back on the property-tax rolls,” Corbett said. “Without this rule change, that would have been much more difficult.”

Among the properties that helped the city make its case for the rule change is the now vacant lot where the Brosh Chapel, 1028 Third St. SE, sat before the flood in what is now the heart of the newly bustling and historic New Bohemia commercial district.

The funeral home was bought out in the city’s sweeping flood-recovery buyout program using federal Community Development Block Grant funds, a funding source that came with the caveat that the lot could not be redeveloped as long as it was in the 100-year flood plain.

Under the existing rule, someone could have redeveloped the Brosh site only if they had reimbursed the CDBG program for the amount spent to buy the property and to demolish it, which Corbett said made for an upfront costs that no developer would want to pay.

“Right now, everything in the heart of New Bohemia is hopping, and without this rule change, the Brosh site probably wouldn’t have been redeveloped,” Corbett said.

Dale Todd, president of the Southside Investment Board in New Bohemia, on Monday called the rule change a “huge” benefit for New Bohemia. He predicted redevelopment proposals for the Brosh site and others in the New Bohemia district to surface in short order.

Joe O’Hern, the city’s flood recovery and reinvestment director, noted on Monday that the Iowa Economic Development Authority earlier had allowed the redevelopment of flood-damaged historic buildings purchased with CDBG funds and not demolished. Now, the rule change also will help the redevelopment of non-historic buyout buildings as well as newly vacant lots like the Brosh site.

“Which is very good news for our historic districts, so we can fill in those missing teeth,” O’Hern said.

O’Hern pointed to the former Novak Heating and Air Conditioning Co. business in Czech Village, a newer building bought out with CDBG funds, as an example of an existing building that will benefit from the rule change. Now, the city will have a better chance of seeking redevelopment proposals for the building because the purchaser will only have to reimburse the CDBG program for the current fair market value of the property and not for the higher buyout amount, he said.

Tina Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, on Monday confirmed the rule changes, adding that the state agency wants the City Council in a reasonable time to designate and zone “commercial” areas to be covered by the rule changes.

The council, O’Hern noted, has taken an initial planning step for the Ellis Boulevard NW area with the help of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association, and Corbett added that council members Karr, Ann Poe and Monica Vernon are working on redevelopment plans across the river from downtown.

O’Hern said any redevelopment in the 100-year flood plain will need to meet the city’s flood-plain ordinance, which requires properties to be elevated a foot above the 100-year flood plain or floodproofed in some other way.

At the same time, he pointed out that the city’s redevelopment in the 100-year flood plain is coming in “very focused areas,” which he said is different from a broad program of redevelopment in the risky area for future flooding.

“I think there is some balancing going on,” O’Hern said.The City Council had hoped that a flood-protection system on both sides of the Cedar River would take property now in the 100-year flood plain out of it. However, local voters twice turned down a sales-tax proposal to help fund protection, so it’s unclear if or when protection might come to the west side of the river. The Army Corps of Engineers is working on the design for a protection system on the east side of the river, though the construction of the system has not yet been funded by Congress.   

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