116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Pushback from some Wellington Heights residents who oppose city plans to turn a vacant building into a community resource center and emergency shelter swayed a Cedar Rapids panel to vote 3-2 against recommending rezoning of the property for public use.
The City Planning Commission, with four members absent, voted against rezoning the former Colonial Centre at 1500 Second Ave. SE from traditional mixed use to public institutional district, which would allow the city to pursue the center, should the Cedar Rapids City Council vote to acquire it.
Commission members at a Thursday meeting primarily indicated a desire to extend the project’s timeline to ensure residents have sufficient opportunity to offer feedback.
Many residents shared concerns with the proposal, fearing the facility would bring more homeless people into Wellington Heights without proper supportive services, destabilizing the neighborhood as residents work through other issues, such as reducing crime.
The community resource center would use $2.6 million in federal pandemic relief funds. The project would include an emergency shelter for part of the year, helping house the homeless during the winter or city residents when disasters strike, such as the pandemic or last summer’s derecho.
The Cedar Rapids City Council needs to approve the rezoning in August before considering whether to acquire the property at a Sept. 14 meeting.
Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt had said city staff would gather more input from residents in the next two months on what services might be compatible with the neighborhood.
For the city, the property is an ideal location for such a center because of its central location near transit and grocery stores and would serve low- to moderate-income residents. Possible uses would include providing computer, internet and library services and housing.
Pratt said staff requested the rezoning be conditional upon city acquisition of the property in an effort to address residents’ concerns about the plan advancing.
But the grant funding is contingent on including a shelter component in an effort to promote resiliency during extreme weather events or other disasters.
To secure the funds, Pratt said the rezoning first needs to happen — allowing the city to lock in funding before council consideration of acquiring the property.
“We have a strong track record of working with the neighborhood, and we absolutely appreciate the value of that time that we will have with the neighborhood association from now through September,” Pratt said before the commission vote.
Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association Treasurer Dan Borngraeber, speaking on behalf of the association, said its board voted to ask the commission to delay a rezoning decision by 90 days, as residents remain skeptical of what the center’s true purpose would be one it is built.
“That’s truly what this proposal is. It’s for an emergency overflow homeless shelter,” Borngraeber said.
Sophia Joseph, treasurer of the Advocates for Social Justice, said her group also favors a 90-day delay.
“This is not a large ask,” Joseph said. “This is the minimum that should be done for a project of this magnitude.”
Speaking for herself, Joseph said she felt the proposed project was a Band-Aid fix to the issue of homelessness and that the city was “ramming” it through without the consent of the most diverse, low-income residents of Cedar Rapids.
“Listen to the people,” Joseph said. “Talk to the people. It’s their neighborhood.”
Turé Morrow, who founded the nonprofit We Are CR, said Wellington Heights already is struggling with crime, youth engagement and its homeless population.
He said homeless shelters should be spread throughout the city and not just concentrated in the southeast quadrant.
“I feel like we have enough problems in the Wellington Heights neighborhood as it is,” Morrow said.
Morrow urged more time be given to review information about what would happen with this potential project.
“I’m sorry if the 90 days will kill your program, your project,” Morrow said. “That’s not our fault. That’s not our problem.”
Jim Halvorson, who chairs the commission and who supported the rezoning, said many issues raised by community members were relevant but above the unpaid, volunteer panel’s purview to consider.
“I think it’s really more about how that space would be programmed as opposed to is it appropriate to have a public use at that particular location in the broader context of comprehensive plan, master plan, future land use plan,” Halvorson said.
Commission member Lisa Peloquin, who also voted in favor of recommending the rezoning, said she considered that federal funding was on the table and did not want to turn down that money, especially keeping in mind the city’s need for low-income housing.
“To me, personally, I think that it is reasonable to say let’s move forward, try to grab this money and make sure that the community is involved heavily with staff,” Peloquin said.
Still, other commission members were moved by testimony from the neighborhood’s residents and other stakeholders.
“I don’t think it’s the right building and the right location,” said commission member Kim King, who voted against recommending the rezoning. “I do appreciate the staff work on this. You did your job. You brought it forward and did your work on it.”
Panel member Linda Langston asked that details of this discussion be clear in the meeting minutes so the council would understand the nature of the 3-2 vote against the rezoning, as opposed to thinking the vote was a non-recommendation.
Commission recommendations are provided to the nine-member council to inform its decisions.
“My concern is the engagement with the neighborhood and the ability to clarify and move us in that direction,” Langston said. “ … I think I understand what the city is doing, and I understand the challenges of federal funding, but I think that this project will be best served by as much conversation as we can get.”
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