116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The cars roll into town seemingly all at once.
It’s 5 a.m. on any given weekday, and a small cadre of workers toting laptop bags and donning business attire — collared button-down shirts, a dress, a pair of clacking heels — appears.
Hours later, once these worker bees leave their offices and peel out of their parking spots, even more people stream into downtown Cedar Rapids to take their place, filling the streets and parking lots to grab some grub and chat over happy-hour drinks.
Teenage trios pause briefly at a stop sign, then accelerate again as they turn onto Second Avenue SE, riding by whimsically on electric scooters. The sound of music from a show at McGrath Amphitheatre carries over the Cedar River and drowns out their laughter.
The activity is a welcome sight as the urban core of Iowa’s second-largest city shakes off the impacts of COVID-19.
By night, this area on the east side of the river is a central spot for friends to mingle and for families to gather and enjoy a comedy show, musical performance or each other’s company.
But by day, as pandemic-prompted work-from-home seems here to stay, community stakeholders agree it’s evident the virus’ spread slowed downtown activity — and business hasn’t entirely come roaring back.
In this relatively new reality, Cedar Rapids isn’t alone as cities around the nation from Washington to Louisville face existential questions about how to spark new life into their downtowns.
A hub made up of office towers, the city’s central district has long had restaurants, retail and housing interspersed in it. But the pivot to remote or hybrid work formats has added commercial vacancies and resulted in less daytime traffic downtown, putting the urban core at a critical juncture.
The city of Cedar Rapids is preparing to work with the Downtown Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District to refresh its Vision Downtown master plan. This will be the first strategic effort to contemplate a path forward for the urban core since the onset of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020.
“This is an opportunity for us to re-imagine what we want our downtown to look like, and it’s definitely based on the environment in which we live now post-COVID,” Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said.
COVID-19 saps downtown energy
Late one recent weekday morning, Justin Zehr sat with his back to Second Avenue SE inside Cliff’s Dive Bar and Grill, one of the several downtown area restaurants he co-owns along with Bricks down the street, LP Street Food on Third Avenue SW and others. Behind him, only the occasional person or car passed by.
Before COVID-19, Zehr said it seemed Cedar Rapids was booming. There was constant energy and genuine enthusiasm surrounding the city’s progress, he said. His restaurants were seeing record numbers. City officials were in talks with developers to repurpose prime downtown real estate.
The Heart of America Group planned to turn the Guaranty Bank building and Old World Theater into two hotels under the Marriott flag, and developer Steve Emerson envisioned a 25-story high-rise near the Paramount Theatre with over 100 residential units, a grocery store, rooftop gardens and more.
After some delays, other projects stayed the course despite COVID-19, including transformational developments such as the $81.5 million First and First West mixed-use site featuring a Big Grove brewery, hotel rooms, housing and more on First Avenue W and First Street SW, as well as the $52 million mixed-use “Banjo Block” development adjacent to the Cedar Rapids Public Library and Greene Square.
But COVID-19 “took the wind out of” downtown momentum, Zehr said. The pandemic put the Guaranty Bank and Paramount high-rise projects on ice, and with it, sorely needed additions for downtown: hotel rooms, more housing and a grocery store.
With most adult Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, Zehr said nightlife has largely picked up again.
VenuWorks, the company contracted to book events for city-owned performance venues including the Alliant Energy PowerHouse, Paramount Theatre, McGrath Amphitheatre and the InOn Ice arena, has orchestrated concerts and events that Zehr said have given a boost to nighttime traffic downtown.
It’s the daytime traffic that’s lagging, he said, with slow lunch hours proving “the biggest miss” in the work-from-home environment.
“The more it's booked, the better it is for downtown, the more energy there is,” Zehr said. “But also, people do need to get back to work and they do need to get back in the office. … Every town this size should have a downtown that's pretty relevant, and there should be some things going on.”
Every time city leaders speak with executives of major downtown employers, they have an ask, O’Donnell said: “Get your people back to work.”
O’Donnell, a top organizational leader herself as chief executive officer of Women Lead Change, said business leaders fear trying too hard, too fast to get employees to return to the office. They are grappling with a shortage of skilled workers and with the “Great Resignation,” an economic trend of millions of Americans — dissatisfied with their jobs, seeking better workplace conditions or opting to retire — quitting in unprecedented numbers.
“They’ve come to realize that in a war for talent and in a war for workforce, if people want to work in the office three days a week, they get to work in the office three days a week,” O’Donnell said.
Housing, hotel rooms key
Remote work, retiring workers and corporate location shifts have put available office space in flux, said City Council member Scott Olson, a real estate broker, as cubicles and entire offices once filled with workers now sit empty.
District 3 council member Dale Todd, who represents downtown and much of the surrounding core districts including New Bohemia, Czech Village and Kingston Village, said there are some downtown properties that have languished since the 2008 flood, COVID-19 challenges aside.
“We are not operating at our full capacity because we still have a host of stragglers who have yet to capitalize on the opportunity that the flood provided,” Todd said of those properties, more numerous in the eastern-facing part of downtown.
The path forward, city leaders agree, is to add more housing where offices once were to generate more activity and attract more amenities, and to build at least another hotel to help VenuWorks book larger events that call for more overnight guest space. Other vacancies, such as closed restaurants, will likely “backfill” themselves in time, Olson said.
Emerson is perhaps the primary developer giving new life to real estate in the urban core, taking office spaces that once hosted businesses that likely never would have returned and converting these underused buildings into housing.
Some of the renovations Emerson has completed include the old Grant Vocational High School in Kingston Village and Smulekoff’s on the east bank of the Cedar River. Emerson is nearly finished with the Dows Building on Second Street SE and has two other projects in the works at the Skogman Building, 417 First Ave. SE, and the Iowa Building, 411 Third St. SE.
He said it used to be the case that downtown was “a ghost town” because of its business-centric composition, but the activity generated by residents in the urban core seems to make it “vibrant and healthier.”
There are restaurants, bars, activities such as axe-throwing and the river all in one concentrated location that is well-connected to the surrounding core districts, Emerson said, so people don’t have to migrate far to enjoy a good mix of entertainment and amenities.
“Once you get enough people down there, it seems like you get enough of an energy that all the sudden people want to be down there and there are things to do,” Emerson said.
To spur interest in repurposing some of these spaces, the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance launched a “Race for the Space” program for aspiring and current business owners.
The selected business will win $20,000 toward rent and build-out at a selected downtown property, a $7,500 credit toward architectural design services and support, as well as an owner education course. The winner can choose from five spaces in the inventory based on whatever fits its operation, said Jesse Thoeming, downtown executive director with the alliance.
“The goal was for it to be a draw to the kind of business that wouldn't have even considered downtown Cedar Rapids, or maybe not even Cedar Rapids at all, without this kind of program,” Thoeming said. “Uncertainty is the toughest variable for any current or prospective business owner.”
Such a program won’t solve the problem of office vacancies alone, Thoeming said, but it’s the Economic Alliance’s hope that it can move the needle to attract a new business and supplement the efforts of a pro-economic development City Hall.
Downtown vision unwritten
Walking along a mostly empty Second Street SE, Dante Tusing, 19, and Braxton Janda, 18, both from Cedar Rapids, said they hoped to see the rest of downtown morph into something akin to NewBo.
It’s fun to “terrorize the streets” on a scooter, Tusing said. And with gas prices rising, Janda said he likes “anything that can keep me out of my car.” But they’d like to see more events and spontaneous things for younger people to do.
During a recent evening at Chrome Horse in NewBo, the two said they were sitting down and eating ice cream, and two hours later they were trying to beat adults at a music trivia game.
“We were losing terribly,” Tusing said, though Janda insisted they didn’t trail all that far behind.
They agreed they’d like to see Cedar Rapids take inspiration from Chicago, where Tusing said there seems to be a more shared sense of community.
“Here it feels like we don't really have a culture or community or anything really pulling us all together,” Tusing said. “We're just kind of here.”
No matter how the face of downtown shifts, Todd insists the heart of the city still is the place where people want to be. Downtown “will tell us what it really wants to be when it’s time,” Todd said, and it shouldn’t be compared to other cities.
Thoeming said the key to creating a “wow” factor to lure visitors to the urban core is doubling down on public art, modernized lighting projects that produce a lit-up nighttime skyline and amenities such as trails — anything that generates buzz.
Tim Kindl, co-owner in the local restaurant group with Zehr, said downtown Cedar Rapids could use a grocery store or a bodega.
Until downtown increases it population density, Emerson said the grocery store question is a “chicken and egg” scenario.
“We need a grocery store to support the residents, but we need residents to support the grocery store,” Emerson said. “ … You don't want to put one down there now that's just going to fail or lose money.”
Kindl also suggested a “free parking Friday” to make downtown more inviting for people to spend time in, like across the river in Kingston Village or in NewBo where motorists don’t have to pay to park. Zehr suggested a small property tax adjustment on the SSMID to pay for such an initiative.
O’Donnell said she was willing to contemplate how to make free parking possible to some extent while downtown tries to “wake up and revitalize,” though she understands the fees are a revenue generator for the city of Cedar Rapids.
She sees people walking their dogs, riding Veo e-scooters and bikes, going to coffee shops and bars as part of the vibrancy of downtown. But she maintains a larger vision — the bustling heart of the city she campaigned on last year.
It’s a downtown featuring walkable neighborhoods where the necessities are within a 15-minute walk, you can find recreational activities or grab a drink along the river and, once Iowa’s new two-year moratorium on new casinos licenses expires, maybe — just maybe, after two failed tries — Cedar Rapids residents will have a $250 million entertainment complex where they can gamble.
“We’ve got to make sure to have things that people come to down here,” O’Donnell said. “Let’s not make them. Let’s make them want to.”
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