116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar River nearly destroyed Cedar Rapids, but rather than shun the waterway, city officials are in the midst of a multiyear effort to make the riverfront a focal point and community hub.
The lunch hour has become a particularly popular time along the banks of the Cedar River, where new paved trails weave by water, through green grass and under shade trees. A 'prairie in progress' adds color and vegetation to the urban setting.
Here, professionals break away from computer screens for a little nature therapy, mothers push toddlers in strollers and cyclists pedal through.
'It's beautiful to come down here,' said MaTrasa Maae, who walks along the river at least once a week during her lunch break. 'I love that it is nature. It feels like you are at a park, except you are still in the city.'
Cedar Rapids is in the third phase of the block-by-block upgrade of Riverfront Park on the west bank of the Cedar River. It began in 2014 along First Street SW between Second and Third Avenues SW, followed by the block between First and Second Avenues SW in 2015.
Old and failing walkways and deteriorating patios have been removed to create more of a park feel with less concrete and more green space. Overgrown trees have been removed and the grade has been flattened to open up the area for better views of the river.
New lighting has been added to improve the sense of safety. Wider sidewalks and water fountains make the area more welcoming for pedestrian and bike traffic, city leaders said.
This summer, the block between First Avenue SW and the 5-in-1 Dam is under reconstruction, including removal of seven trees and crumbling concrete. Scheduled for completion by the end of August, this phase includes replacement of sidewalks, planting of at least 10 trees and laying of sod over freshly graded areas. Permanent amenities and irrigation are not being included because the stretch could become part of the flood protection system, city officials said.
All told, the investment in these three segments is $116,000, according to city officials.
'People's perception of safety had declined in that area,' said Sven Leff, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, which is doing much of the work. 'At street level in some places, you couldn't see the river or across river. It was really dense. We wanted to improve safety, sightlines, access and design. We wanted to make it sunny, more active and more open.'
Sarah George, who works downtown and was out walking in the area last week, said she feels safe in the area.
'You are not battling traffic and it's nice to be by the water,' she said. 'It's clean and you get a nice breeze. I wouldn't call it busy, but it's nice to pass people so you're not all alone.'
Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the improvements were driven, in part, by research.
'A number of studies through the years have shown the city needs to do a better job of embracing the river,' Pomeranz said. 'One of our interests is making Cedar Rapids more attractive and improving amenities, particularly along the river. And, it's rather inexpensive. We are taking a resource already there, and enhancing it. It's not reinventing the wheel.'
He noted much of the work is being done by city employees.
Riverfront Park is just one piece of the changes along the riverfront in recent years.
Just south of the Riverfront Park area, summer concerts have drawn people to the new $7.1 million McGrath Amphitheatre and connecting Sunner Memorial Park. Opened in 2013, the Cedar River along with the downtown skyline are the backdrop for performances. On the east bank, new segments of the Cedar River multiuse trail have been added and Five Seasons Park was renovated.
The private sector is on board with embracing the river.
A group called Destination Cedar Rapids has its own plans tied to the river, including an eye-catching pedestrian bridge over the river downstream, riverfront activities and access at the Sinclair site, and overhauling Cedar Lake.
New apartment buildings and condos tout access and views.
'Relax on the riverfront plaza spanning the front of the building,' read listings for the new Metropolitan condo complex. The Facebook page for the nearby Kingston Commons promises 'Spacious and open floor plans with a spectacular river view.'
The upgrades are part of what brought Carey Major and Joanna Basile, of Cedar Rapids, to the river last week to walk their dogs, named Bob and Morgan.
'It creates a good sense of community by drawing people down here,' Major said.