116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Developer Steve Emerson is remodeling three historic downtown Cedar Rapids office buildings into housing units, with the first one scheduled to open by the end of this month.
The seven-story Dows Building, at 210 Second St. SE, will be the first to open, with 43 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. The ground floor will continue to be used for office space.
The entire interior of the Skogman Building, 417 First Ave. SE, will be converted into apartments — the final number hasn’t been decided — by year’s end.
And work on the Iowa Building, 411 Third St. SE, is to be completed sometime next year. Its first two floors will remain office space, with apartments on the top floors. The Jimmy John’s restaurant will continue operating on the ground floor.
Rents have yet to be determined.
Grants, tax credits
The planning and the paperwork for the projects took a couple of years, given the tax credits and grants Emerson sought and won.
“Just getting them set up, to try going after grants, getting everything documented to make sure that it's historic, and complying with the historic rules as we convert, it takes a lot of time and a lot of review in the process,” Emerson said.
The Iowa Economic Development Authority awarded $1.5 million in tax credits for the redevelopment of the Skogman Building and the Iowa Building in October 2021.
Other awards for the Dows Building included workforce housing credits, brownfield/grayfield tax credits and state and federal historic tax credits.
The Skogman Building won $750,000 in redevelopment tax credits because it’s considered to be in a brownfield or grayfield site.
And the Iowa Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was awarded $979,559 in workforce housing tax credits.
Remodeling a historic building, while retaining its historic elements, takes finesse.
At the Dows building, the ground level’s original terrazzo flooring — a composite that contains a pops of color with aggregate chips — remains, as does the original entry, which was uncovered, cleaned and restored.
The flooring inside the apartments, though, is new vinyl tile.
Adam Covington, the residential property manager from Mix Property Management, compares the rehab of a historic building to a puzzle.
“That's why I really like the historic properties and renovations, just because you're given a set of guidelines,” he said. “It's really about maximizing and creating the best space that you can or the best finishes that you can within that set of parameters.
“So typically, (you) go through a project and gather or look at samples of the materials that are already in the building,” Covington said. “And then from that we'll be able to either replicate or mimic what was originally in the building.”
While other buildings have a more traditional aesthetic like oak cabinetry and reclaimed hardwood floors, Covington wanted the Dows Building to have a contemporary and modern style with black cabinetry and chrome hardware.
“It's the same style of cabinetry, appliances, same countertops, but basically there are different color cabinets … the washed patina like the gray,” he said. “Then the other floors … are all black cabinets, wood, black cabinetry, chrome hardware, and that sort of stuff.”
Though the appliances and cabinets are new, the building maintains its original corridors and interior doors.
Nikki Halvorson, president of Save CR Heritage, said historic buildings provide character and keep the complex fabric of Cedar Rapids neighborhoods intact.
The investment and reuse of historic buildings attracts people to live downtown, she said, adding she hopes the new units offer affordable housing.
“One thing that's cool, too, is that when we keep our character downtown, we increase the likelihood of people wanting to come look and tour to live here,” Halverson said.
Also, older, historic buildings can last longer, she said.
“Surviving older structures have lasted this long, because they're built well, and they’re built of materials that are like rare or almost impossible to find now at an affordable cost.”
Caleb Mason, the economic development manager for the city of Cedar Rapids, said historic preservation is important to the community and helps increase housing opportunities and support local businesses.
In addition to preserving historical assets to the community, historic renovations create a vibrancy that attracts people downtown and supports local retail, he said.
Although converting commercial buildings into housing can be complicated, the city offers incentives to help make the projects financially feasible, Mason said.
“Our incentives are always based upon generating new value,” he said.
“So just, for example, in one of these projects, you have an existing value there, and the developer makes a $10 million investment, which raises the property value,” Mason said.
”Correspondingly, the (property) taxes increase, and we can do something with that increased tax base generated by their investment and divert that back to them.“