116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Dale Todd called it.
Decades ago, the now-Cedar Rapids City Council member summed up a vision to turn Cedar Lake — an urban lake long seen as an eyesore and plagued by environmental problems — into a game-changing community asset.
“This derelict site can be transformed into a recreational mecca for skateboarders, in-line skaters, ice skaters, BMX bicyclists, nature lovers and countless other leisure interests,” Todd, then a private citizen, wrote in an April 1997 guest column in The Gazette. “It is also an opportunity for Cedar Rapids’ noted capacity for volunteerism to further shine. Individual and group efforts could restore the wetlands by planting floral species, trees and other plants, for instance.”
The way Todd and others engaged in citizen-led efforts to revitalize the 120-acre lake and surrounding park area saw it, the space just needed the resources to fully flourish — the potential already was there.
Cedar Lake and the adjoining land are just north of downtown, and would satisfy a need to provide recreation near the urban core. Interstate 380 motorists venturing through town catch a glimpse of the lake as they drive by, so with the right amenities, it could lure tourists into the heart of the city.
“Rediscovered, renewed, it could bring us closer as a city and remind us among the cityscape of downtown of the beauty and wonder that is found in nature,” Todd wrote.
The faces and names leading the charge to transform Cedar Lake into a recreational hub have changed over the years. But under the umbrella of ConnectCR, a grassroots effort will bring to life an idea that took root in the 1970s under previous leadership to infuse new life into the lake area.
Two decades later, the vision is unfolding essentially the way Todd laid it out in his 1997 column.
Just in time for Todd’s 64th birthday Thursday, the ConnectCR group announced it had locked in all needed funding for a $20 million project to revitalize the lake north of downtown and construct a pedestrian-bike bridge spanning the Cedar River to the south of downtown.
The lake’s transformation will include a boardwalk and handicap-accessible piers, as well as preserving wetlands on the north shore, adding paddle sport launch locations, floating islands and a nature-based playground.
“From the looks of it, it's a very simple project,” Todd told The Gazette. “It's an urban lake in the heart of the city that has a bunch of muck in it that you need to get rid of. But it's also a very complicated project with a lot of moving pieces that simply took time to get those all in sync in a way that made sense for the project and the community.”
Potential to transform
Not long after City Manager Jeff Pomeranz stepped into his role in 2010, he recalls Todd taking him on a driving tour of the city — which inevitably included a stop at the lake. Pomeranz said the “tremendous opportunity” struck him immediately.
Early in his tenure, Pomeranz met with Todd, then-Mayor Ron Corbett and officials with Alliant Energy, which then owned the lake and had long used it as a cooling pond for its coal-fired power plant. Alliant closed the facility after it was damaged in the 2008 flood.
The task of owning the lake and revitalizing it seemed tall, Pomeranz said. But as several other citizens who had resided in Cedar Rapids long before Pomeranz knew, the lake had potential to become more.
Pomeranz had been the West Des Moines city manager for 12 years before coming to Cedar Rapids. Around the time he began there in 1998, nearby Des Moines acquired a portion of 167-acre Gray’s Lake with the intent to redevelop it for recreational use. The city, community, businesses and region rallied to support its transformation into an urban gem that would provide a gateway into the capital city.
“I saw what has happened in Des Moines in and around the lake, how much the community loves that facility,” Pomeranz said. “ I knew that Cedar Lake could do that for us.”
Pieces ‘fell into place’
The citizens engaged in propelling lake revitalization had to await results of environmental testing before their dreams took a larger leap forward.
Cedar Lake — which had once supplied local breweries with clean water — had sat on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ impaired waters list since 1986. This meant it came with a cautionary advisory to limit consumption of some fish caught there because of toxins.
Environmental testing over the years had showed elevated concentrations of metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, in higher concentrations in the west lake, which took in the outflow of the power plant. Toxins such as chlordane, banned pesticides and PCBs — which are consistent with stormwater runoff — appeared in higher concentrations near the Kenwood ditch and McLoud Run.
Still, in 2015, the state took Cedar Lake off its impaired waters list. And with assurance from the Iowa DNR that the lake was environmentally sound for kayaking, fishing and other recreation, the city in June 2019 bought the lake — precisely, its north cell, which makes up the majority of it — from Alliant for $1.
The pieces came together quickly around that time.
Now under public ownership, the lake would be eligible for more grants. Plus, the purchase opened city access for flood control in the area, which when complete will protect nearby homes and businesses as well as keep storm runoff at bay to help maintain water quality — making the idea of pursuing a $20 million recreation project all the more feasible.
That, too, was a huge boost to the overall ConnectCR vision, said Mike McGrath, the ConnectCR campaign chair.
“It would be very difficult to try to raise money for a lake that might get flooded and destroyed in any kind of future flooding,” he said.
A 2016 feasibility study found that improvements to the lake would drive an estimated $17.5 million in revenue and an increase of 370 jobs, creating a “signature destination” that would attract business and leisure travelers to stay in town. This analysis fueled the connection of Cedar Lake transformation efforts to a proposal for a bridge linking NewBo and Czech Village before they were officially known together as ConnectCR.
“It just becomes an amazing resource for all of our citizens and really something that we can use as a tool to retain and recruit folks to the area,” McGrath said.
With citizens including Felicia Wyrick, Steve Sovern, Todd before his time on council and others rallying to change hearts and minds about the lake, the project was inching forward before the city’s purchase.
“It’s the largest public-private campaign in the city's history, and it was done with very few people,” McGrath said. “ … It was a volunteer vision.”
ConnectCR in April 2019 had launched its campaign to raise $7 million in private funds to revitalize the lake and build a bridge over the Cedar River connecting NewBo and Czech Village, with $5 million contributions each from the city and Hall-Perrine Foundation and over $4 million in private funds already set in stone.
The group reached its fundraising goal last June, but still had a multimillion-dollar gap to fill. A state Community Attraction and Tourism grant of $500,000 and other private contributions pushed ConnectCR to the top, group members said Thursday.
“Those things simply took time, but everything has fell into place,” Todd said.
Maintaining lake quality
As the transformational project is slated for groundbreaking at Cedar Lake this fall and completion by 2025, now the focus for the city turns to maintaining the revitalized lake for years to come.
“We absolutely support all of these amenities, but long term, it's about the stewardship of this as an asset and how do we make sure that we protect it?” Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt asked.
The Linn County Conservation Board is funding a stormwater mitigation project in the south cell of the lake, capturing and improving runoff from the Kenwood watershed basin to improve water quality as it enters the lake.
And while extending the city’s $750 million permanent Flood Control System north is a priority, Pratt said the confluence of timing with that work and the energy surrounding ConnectCR create a “chicken and egg” question — which came first is hard to say, but both projects fueled momentum for the other.
Once complete in the coming years, a new levee and trail system will be added west of Shaver Road NE and south of McLoud Run. There will be a trail on top for pedestrian and bike traffic, and some fishing areas on the base of the levee by the lake.
Functionally, the levee will separate the lake so Cedar River floodwater cannot flood into the lake and surrounding neighborhood, and it will segregate an existing rail yard from recreational aspects of the lake.
Cedar Lake was not included in the Army Corps of Engineers’ original plan for providing flood protection on the east side of Cedar River, said Rob Davis, city flood control program manager. With this extension, an additional 85 to 90 properties will benefit from flood protection.
The first phase is expected to start in about a month, Davis said, after the council in July approved an over $18 million construction contract with Reinbeck-based Peterson Contractors Inc. on the segment around Cedar Lake.
The flood control work also enhanced the Iowa DNR’s interest in supporting lake revitalization, Davis said — officials did not want to clean or dredge the lake if stormwater runoff would only bring toxins back into it.
Eventually, Davis said the city can look at habitat improvements for the rest of the lake, as well as removing additional muck and hydraulic dredging. But the first step is to clear 8 feet of muck, which the Iowa DNR has agreed to do for $525,000. Removing this unsuitable soil will provide a stable base for the levee to situate as construction gears up and give more depth for fish to survive, also helping to improve the water quality.
The 20-foot-high levee will help conceal a view of railroad and lessen some of the noise, Davis said.
“When you're at lake level, you’ll really feel like you're in just a little better environment,” Davis said. “Right now today, you go down that bike trail and you're right next to the trains. … I think the flood system makes the ConnectCR project better because it's now segregated the railroad.”
Pomeranz said this will be a “game-changer” for Cedar Rapids that would not have been possible without enthusiastic citizens.
Once the bridge is complete and the lake is restored, Pomeranz said the world-class amenity will be “for everybody” and attract a diverse community of people who enjoy a variety of activities — biking, fishing, walking or simply taking in the beauty of nature.
“For the community to set a goal — a big goal — and carrying that through for that long a period of time and now having this kind of success is really impressive,” Pomeranz said. “This isn’t about one person or 10 people. This is about the community coming together, public and private, and making this happen.”
Todd is well acquainted with Cedar Lake already. He heads there to jog or ride his bike, and it brings him joy to see people fishing or walking the trail with their families for the first time — having fun just minutes from their homes.
“There are a lot of people that think of the lake as theirs. We have been very careful to protect the interests of all user groups down there. It has been a delicate balancing act, but I believe we have been true to everybody’s vision,” Todd said. “And make no mistake — in the next three years it’s going to be a construction zone, but when it’s all said and done, it will be something that the entire community can be proud of.
“And I can just smile.”
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