116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Residents of the city’s northwest quadrant have long waited for their part of town to receive permanent protection against flooding while watching a system of walls, gates and levees spring up on the east side of the Cedar River. But construction of Cedar Rapids’ Flood Control System in their area will come sooner than expected, thanks to an allocation of $10.2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, city officials announced Monday.
The city unveiled plans to dedicate $10.2 million of its nearly $28.2 million allocation of federal American Rescue Plan Act aid toward two projects in the northwest quadrant. The area continues to grapple with recovery after it was hit especially hard in the 2008 flood, with several lots still sitting vacant after the demolition of properties that sustained damage in the disaster.
Thirteen years ago after the flood, Al Pierson, president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association, said many here — including himself — took “a leap of faith to rebuild and reopen our homes and businesses.”
Pierson, owner of Pierson’s Flower Shop, said residents have faith in the plan for protection from floods. They love the neighborhood, its history and even the river, which he said is “why people come here to live and play and work.”
“One of the most common questions I've gotten as neighborhood president is, ‘When will we get flood protection?’” Pierson said. “Well, it's coming sooner than we thought.”
Federal funding through the Army Corps of Engineers covers permanent flood protection only on the east side of the river because of its cost-benefit formula — on the west side, the cost of adding flood control was greater than the value of the buildings it would protect, according to the formula.
But Mayor Brad Hart said the city was committed to the west side as well.
“After all, we're all part of Cedar Rapids,” Hart said. “We're really extremely grateful to have this funding available to us to help us address many critical needs in Cedar Rapids. Flood protection is one of those critical needs. It's important for the future of Cedar Rapids. It spurred lots of development we've already seen around the river, and will spur additional development.”
When the City Council in 2015 adopted the Flood Control System Master Plan, city Flood Control Manager Rob Davis said it was estimated to be another 10 years before the first flood protection project would start in the Northwest and Time Check neighborhoods, around 2025. This announcement accelerates the timeline to 2022, as it speeds up the design and construction processes.
Half of this allocation — which is on the agenda for consideration at Tuesday’s City Council meeting — will go toward a project to elevate a segment of O Avenue NW over the top of a levee. An ADA-accessible ramp will run from the raised O Avenue NW to the Northwest Gateway and Memorial Plaza. That is expected to start in the summer of 2022.
The funding comes at a key time for this segment of the flood control system, Davis said, as both Penn Avenue NW and I Avenue NW are planned to close for future work, particularly the Ellis Boulevard NW extension. Construction of the O Avenue NW and levee work before these closures will ensure continuous access in the Northwest Neighborhood.
The other half of the funds will give a boost to a project to reconstruct Ellis Boulevard NW, with an anticipated 2023 start.
The city has done away with previous plans for a flood wall across O Avenue NW coming onto Ellis Lane and a 16-foot-tall gate, which Davis said would have been the largest in the flood control system. Now, Ellis Boulevard NW will swing to the west and gently rise above a levee with no walls and gates. The flood control segment will blend into the greenery and provide an entrance to Ellis Park, Davis said, and the city will be able to do enhanced trail improvements there and sidewalks on Ellis Boulevard NW.
As COVID-19 has contributed to increased material costs, and also affected the supply chain, Davis said it is important to speed up projects if possible.
“This is a big deal because it can really help us make sure we're on schedule for completing this at or ahead of the 2035 state funding stream,” Davis said, referring to the $15 million a year the city receives through the Growth Reinvestment Initiative, a state program that helps Iowa communities manage flood woes and allows Cedar Rapids to keep increases in sales tax revenue.
Plus, he said this allocation allows the city to look at potentially using the state sales tax money for the construction of other projects in the overall Flood Control System and ultimately accelerate work other sections.
Flood control had been identified by city and Linn County officials as a potential joint area to spend federal relief funds, as the county has $44 million to allocate. The city over the years has requested contributions for the flood system, which — once built — also will protect some county buildings such as the jail and courthouse.
Hart told The Gazette that city staff continue to work with the county on the allocations. Though there is no county commitment at this time, Hart said its assistance on a flood control project would be “wonderful.”
Council member Tyler Olson, chair of the council’s Flood Control System Committee, noted an uptick in construction of permanent flood protection. Not including federal funding, between the 2014 and 2017 budget years, the city spent over $45.5 million on the system. That has more than doubled in recent years, with over $95.5 million spent in fiscal 2018 through fiscal 2021.
That is nearly $141.1 million overall so far, with an additional $40 million and $51 million anticipated to be spent in the 2022 and 2023 budget years, respectively, not including the Army Corps or American Rescue Plan aid.
“Obviously the primary purpose is a Flood Control System, but really I think the City Council has looked at it from the perspective of a once-in-a-100-year opportunity chance to create a $750 million amenity right through the center of town,” Olson said. “ … We hope it's used by the members of the Time Check neighborhood and citizens all across the community to walk and bike and really enjoy the river and engage with the river, and we hope that people are drawn from all over the region to come to Cedar Rapids and visit.”
Comments: (319) 398-8494; firstname.lastname@example.org