116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Saving Cedar Rapids' historic buildings ‘like herding cats’
Sep. 21, 2013 7:00 am
The likes of Beth DeBoom and Emily Meyer have helped City Hall decide in the flood-recovery era if and when it's time to throw in the towel on history.
The majority of what the city's record flood of June 2008 damaged is gone today, bought out and demolished in the city's sprawling, federally financed, flood-recovery buyout program.
On Friday, the tally of buyouts had reached 1,326 properties - 1,164 residential, 162 commercial or other non-residential - of which 1,140 have been demolished to date.
How, though, has the city done in saving historic buildings and homes as the buyout program winds down? Did historic preservationist enthusiasts such as DeBoom and Meyer have any sway at City Hall?
"I think we've herded the cats in the historic districts, but not all the cats are able to be contained," said DeBoom, president of Save CR Heritage.
The cat reference was to the group's effort to identify the list of flood-damaged buildings worth saving - particularly in the historic commercial areas of New Bohemia and what now has been named Kingston Village, across the Cedar River from downtown - and to convince the city to pull them from what became a City Hall demolition list.
"I think we did what we could," said DeBoom during a recent walking tour of New Bohemia. "We didn't just talk. We acted. And we made a difference."
Meyer, a board member of Save CR Heritage and who served on the city's Historic Preservation Commission for a time after the 2008 flood, credited City Hall for its work in the past year to convince the state of Iowa to permit rebuilding in the 100-year flood plain in special historic districts and in "viable business corridors." Rules in the buyout program otherwise would have made such investment in those areas difficult.
Such special designations will apply to New Bohemia, Kingston Village, the downtown area along First Street SE, Czech Village and the Ellis Boulevard area.
"I applaud the city for making historic districts one of the places where redevelopment is allowed," Meyer said. "It just makes sense."
In turn, City Council member Monica Vernon, chairwoman of the council's Development Committee where much of the council discussions took place about saving buyout properties, credited "the small group" of preservationists for getting the council to pay more attention to history.
"We found common ground," Vernon said.
A brief, condensed history of historic preservation in the city's flood-hit zones would credit the city's Historic Preservation Commission, chaired at the time by Maura Pilcher, for championing preservation in the city's flood-hit areas.
Early on, too, then-City Council member Brian Fagan pushed the council to require a review of properties older than 50 years before they could be demolished. The resolution also gave the commission the power to put a 60-day hold on demolition to see if a different outcome might result.
That 60-day hold has been "an important tool," Meyer said, but she said it is limited without a broader program of incentives to help with redevelopment.
Much of City Hall's focus in the first couple years of flood recovery was to secure and then steer federal and state disaster funds and city sales-tax money to help homeowners renovate their properties or to position them to be bought out, even as the city was working to bring its own flood-damaged public buildings and infrastructure back to life.
However, as properties began to appear on pending demolition lists, City Council acknowledged that not all that had been bought out needed to be demolished.
In one initiative, the city's planning staff and the council identified a list of the best of the flood-damaged buyout homes, and asked local builders if they had an interest in renovating any of them.
A City Hall program, the Residential Disposition Program, emerged that provided qualified entities with a home free of charge in trade for renovation and sale. At one point, more than 100 buyout homes were in line for renovation, though in the end, only 38 were. Three other homes were sold by sealed bid.
Along the way, too, City Hall and local preservationists went back and forth on a lengthy list of commercial properties and a few churches and homes to see what might and might not be saved.
Once again, the city sought redevelopment proposals on a group of properties that it thought could be renovated.
A case in point was the former A&W Family Restaurant on Ellis Boulevard NW, which neighborhood leaders lobbied City Hall hard to save. In the end, the sign was saved and the building demolished just this week after a developer, over the course of many months, could not obtain financing for the renovation.
The effort to to seek redevelopment proposals has saved five historic commercial buildings near the Louis Sullivan-designed bank building at 101 Third Ave. SW, which the city had no intention off demolishing. In the process, the area directly across the river from downtown also gained a new name, Kingston Village, a tribute to its start in the 19th Century as the town of Kingston.
"Historic preservation has to have a context, but to have that little jewel-box bank without the rest of the block anchoring it doesn't leave a lot of clues to future generations," council member Vernon said.
City Hall now has a list of 16 historic properties, 12 commercial ones and 4 houses that have seen new owners step up to get them off the demolition list and with a plan to fix them up.
DeBoom and Meyer are two of the owners, each now having a development agreement with the city to renovate a house in New Bohemia.
At the same time, DeBoom carries around her own list of 12 properties in New Bohemia and Kingston Village, a list that emerged this year as Save CR Heritage's 12 top properties to keep in place.
Eight are being saved, while four - three businesses and a house - are not.
"It's better than what it once was," DeBoom said of the 8-4 score card. "Which tells me we're making some headway with preservation."
One of the four losses - the one-time Globe Grocery at 131 14th Ave. SE, at one of the entry points to New Bohemia - teetered as much as any property on the line between preservation and throwing in the towel. At one point, late last fall, City Council member Pat Shey said the Globe building was a "mishmash" of a structure "cobbled together" over the years, better demolished than kept.
But DeBoom and others changed his mind.
A month later, in December 2012, it burned down before anyone could submit a proposal to City Hall to renovate it.
Today, Save CR Heritage's new darling on the line between saving and demolition is the former South Side Tap, across 14th Avenue SE from the former Globe Grocery site.
However, the South Side Tap, built in 1901 as the Hach Building, brings a different, larger obstacle to preservationists: It did not go into the city's flood-recovery buyout program and so remains in private hands, as does a sprinkling of other empty, flood-damaged businesses and homes.
"It was just built to fit that corner, to fit the neighborhood," DeBoom said of the former South Side Tap. "Even if it's been neglected, it's still a fantastic property."
Meyer said she understands that private owners hold the building, but she added, "I do hope others in the (New Bohemia) district would talk to them, (and say), ‘That the building has a history bigger than your ownership of it.'"
After the 2008 flood, Leon "Tunnie" and Diane Melsha and their son, Jeff, restored the Little Bohemia bar and restaurant up the street from the South Side Tap building. The couple said this week that they bought the South Side Tap after the flood with an early thought to renovating it, too, but concluded that the building was in no shape and the cost too high.
"All the walls are falling in," Tunnie Melsha said.
Jeff Melsha said it could cost $500,000 to repair.
"They act like a half-a-million dollars is nothing," said Jeff Melsha of preservationists as he provided a quick tour of the empty building.
Its foundation is caved in at one spot, someone appeared to have been sleeping inside and animal feces were abundant on the second floor.
"Each time one of these buildings comes down, my heart breaks a little," DeBoom admitted. "But then I bring out that score card.
"I really do look at that every once in a while. I look at it and say, ‘We really did save some. We did it. And these buildings will be around for another 100 years.'"
The city's Vernon said ample federal disaster dollars for buyouts and then demolitions pushed the city to take down unsafe and damaged properties so local taxpayers didn't have to pay the bill. Along the way, in the five-plus years since the flood, the city's flood-recovery initiatives have helped people, including DeBoom and Meyer, acquire and save some properties in exchange for sweat equity and their own investment dollars.
"Those will be markers for the future," Vernon said.
"Those are history lessons for us. … History isn't just in history books. It's all around us."