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Work to start this spring on Cedar Rapids’ $81.5M development featuring Big Grove
Mixed-use development will fill long-vacant city-owned land ‘indicative of a city on the move’
CEDAR RAPIDS — An $81.5 million development of long-vacant city-owned land near Cedar Rapids’ urban core will break ground soon, bringing a mix of restaurants, housing, hotel rooms, a Big Grove brewery and other uses in a signature project that provides a gateway from downtown to the west side of the Cedar River.
The Cedar Rapids City Council on Tuesday signed off on a development agreement for the property along First Avenue W between First and Third Street SW — once earmarked for a casino — setting into motion work on the project by June, likely in May.
Visible from Interstate 380, the development will draw visitors into town and provide an exciting attraction for residents at an area that has sat mostly vacant since the 2008 flood, city officials said.
“It's going to be a great addition to Cedar Rapids, a great addition to the downtown, and I think it is going to be a very exciting and dynamic place to enjoy Cedar Rapids and our river and the views that will be created by the development,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said.
Under the umbrella of 1st and 1st LLC, the development team is made up of Joe Ahmann, president of Hiawatha-based Ahmann companies; Matt Swift, Big Grove co-founder and chief executive officer; and Nate Kaeding, business development director of Coralville-based Build to Suit.
Ahmann said the project has long been in the works and experienced setbacks because of the COVID-19 pandemic as some participants pulled out. But he said those setbacks made this iteration stronger.
“This one is kind of a legacy project,” Ahmann said. “It’s one that is so visible that we just have to make sure — and have been working really hard to make sure — that this is spot-on. … We’re trying to make it an iconic look and project.”
Economic Development Manager Caleb Mason said there are 11 buildings included in the plans that will be done in phases through 2030. There will be a large plaza area at the center of the south block of the development, with the condition the developer create an association to plan events and activities there year-round.
It “will be an attractive place for citizens to gather and enjoy Cedar Rapids,” Mason said. The plaza will include a big screen, seating, a stage area, various plantings, lighting and public art, as well as underground stormwater detention.
A Big Grove brewery will face the plaza. Swift said a different type of brewery — a lager system — will be built at this location, as Big Grove looks to “dial in on the lager and focus on traditional beers” with a longer fermentation process.
“We’re trying to really attach ourselves to the heritage of the community of Cedar Rapids,” Swift said. Germany and the Czech Republic are famous for making some of the best lagers in the world, he said, so this will tie into the city’s Czech roots.
The Pickle Palace bar and grill will feature pickleball courts with a restaurant on the upper story and a roof deck facing the river. The back end with the kitchen faces the road, while the restaurant part spills into the plaza area.
The development will include one — possibly two — hotels, Mason said. The hotel flag must be what’s considered upscale by Smith Travel Research — essentially the same level as the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel or higher, but a smaller, more boutique hotel. That would start in 2023.
Approximately 270 residential units also will be part of the site, with some for-sale condos overlooking the river.
Kaeding said the developers see an opportunity within the whole development to create a spot where people cannot only grab a beer, but hang out and be social with a communal “backyard” feel.
“You can come as you are and celebrate grandma’s 80th birthday or someone’s retirement or a kid’s birthday party,” Kaeding said.
The city will kick in a 20-year, 85 percent rebate on the incremental taxes generated by each building, as well as a $1.5 million plaza completion grant made in two installments. That area will be completed in two phases. Cedar Rapids also would reimburse for removal of a foundation left by the city, up to $30,000.
The overall investment does not include a public parking ramp, a city project that staff plan to support with $6 million allocated by the Iowa Economic Development Authority through the state’s Reinvestment District program.
The city wouldn’t be obligated to start construction of the ramp until there’s at least $30 million in value, the completion of about four or five buildings. This may in part replace underground parking currently on May's Island, which Pomeranz said was “badly damaged” in flooding. Specifics are still being ironed out.
Mason said the investment will be “well over $100 million when it's all said and done with tenant build out.”
“You know how to create that environment. It is something that attracts people to stay in town and to visit, so it's something that is going to be well-suited in that space,” council member Ashley Vanorny told developers. “I think it's the best use conceptually for that space that we had ever heard of.”
A separate city project nearby that’s receiving $1.5 million in state Reinvestment District funds is a 5-in-1 Dam bypass channel for Cedar River recreation. Work on the permanent $750 million flood control system along First Street W will incorporate a flood wall near the development as well.
Pomeranz said working to “unite with the river” has been a city priority, and now there will be places to sit down, have a meal and take in the beauty of the scenery.
“This is a project that is indicative of a city on the move, and it’s a beautiful example of when the city’s public and private industry work together,” Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said.
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