116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — While the Cedar Rapids City Council on Tuesday embraced plans to connect Ellis Boulevard NW to Sixth Street NW — a project expected to spur investment in the flood-devastated Time Check neighborhood — the elected officials advanced the $6.4 million project in a contentious 6-3 vote, split in their support for a segment that St. Patrick’s Catholic Church parishioners fear will discourage attendance.
As church membership has been falling in recent decades around the globe, a trend worsened by COVID-19, dozens of parishioners dressed in green filled City Hall’s council chambers to oppose a street project they worried would dissuade people from coming to their house of worship at the corner of First Avenue and Fifth Street NW. Another dozen or so people watched the discussion streamed live from a TV outside the third-floor room.
Overall, the project involves First Avenue W improvements from Sixth Street NW to First Street NW, and connecting Sixth Street NW to Ellis Boulevard NW — changes welcomed by residents to help move traffic and add a connection to downtown.
John Witt, city traffic engineer, said this was a “complex” project. It involves a number of changes, including but not limited to pavement replacement on Sixth Street NW and Ellis Boulevard NW, a new street between those two roads, roundabout construction at E and F avenues, replacement of a traffic signal at Sixth Street NW and First Avenue W, medians on First Avenue W and improvements to the southbound Interstate 380 exit ramp and L Street SW.
This work also is happening in tandem with work on the $750 million permanent Flood Control System and on developments in the area — both the First and First West mixed-use site featuring a Big Grove brewery and eventually a 5-in-1 Dam bypass channel providing recreational amenities on the Cedar River.
But the point of contention Tuesday was plans affecting St. Patrick’s Church to remove the traffic signal at Fifth Street NW, put in a median from First Street to Sixth Street NW and add a stop sign at Fifth Street NW, making it so that traffic could only turn right to the west.
Witt said crash data no longer justified a traffic signal at the First Avenue W and Fifth Street intersection. He said some design modifications were made based on community feedback. Another change is special signal timing to accommodate church events.
Funding comes from a mix of sources, including the local-option sales tax that funds Paving for Progress, state Traffic Safety Improvement Program grant, Metropolitan Planning Organization Surface Transportation Block Grant and tax increment financing.
Construction is set to start in May and wrap up by October 2023.
Addressing the council, St. Patrick’s Pastor Greg Bahl presented a petition with over 700 names from those expressing concern, particularly with the Fifth Street NW changes.
Bahl asked the council to vote against the plans and consider adjustments to this intersection, and said the project would present challenges to businesses and neighborhoods around it in addition to the parish of over 1,000 families.
“It is demonstrably detrimental to our parish to limit the egress from the church,” Ball said.
North Liberty resident Steve Stefani, a member of the church’s finance committee, said he thought the plans would discourage traffic flow to and from the church’s parking lots and result in a decline in weekly Mass attendance.
“We are completely dependent upon the weekly contributions of parishioners,” Stefani said. “As we saw during the pandemic, people don’t contribute when they don’t attend, so we feel that the benefit that is proposed by the city’s plan is far outweighed by the disadvantage to the church.”
Janet Hixson, a lifelong parishioner, joined other speakers in asking the council to table the Fifth Street NW work for the next year until the impacts of work on Sixth Street NW to Ellis Boulevard NW became evident.
“It’s certainly going to decrease the ability of St. Patrick’s to serve our parishioners, our families and our community,” Hixson said.
Council member Marty Hoeger, a member of the church for 49 years, was one of the three to vote against the project along with council members Pat Loeffler and Ann Poe.
He said the church and its $5 million parish center sustained significant flood damage in 2008, and the 2020 derecho damaged a roof that had just been replaced days before the storm.
“Why do we want to make it hard on them?” Hoeger asked.
He wanted to see the city work with parishioners and pause work at this intersection. “I am biased on this, but I will fight for these parishioners,” Hoeger said.
Poe said she couldn’t vote for the proposal “as much as I don’t want to jeopardize” the Sixth to Ellis connection, because she did not want to “have an impact negatively upon this wonderful institution in our community.”
There was some discussion among council members about amending this aspect of the project to keep the rest of it moving.
Council member Tyler Olson said the nine-member elected body lacks the technical capacity to make such an amendment mid-meeting. He said an impact to one aspect of the project likely would affect the rest of it.
“As a council, I’m not sure we want to redesign particular parts of a street project,” Olson said. “ … I really strongly believe we should not amend particular parts of a traffic project, particularly ones as complicated as this, and I believe we should either vote yes or no.”
The church survived the flood and is in a “neighborhood in transition,” council member Dale Todd said.
“It comes down to this issue of change and what happens to the neighborhoods and what happens to the institutions in those neighborhoods,” Todd said. “I think the policy changes we’re going to make long term are going to help the church, they’re going to help the neighborhood. It might be not easy to see at this point in time, but it’s my belief that there will be change. But if we work and try to incorporate that change into what we do, I think we can survive.”
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