116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - The eighth-annual Irish District Music Fest on June 17 will be the last. But that doesn't mean the event's going away.
'It will be the College District Fest after this,” said Tom Erger, who's organized the event since 2010.
That name reflects a new identity emerging in a northeast Cedar Rapids area including all or parts of other neighborhoods - Mound View, Uptown and Irish District, for three. The label reflects major projects at the two colleges that bookend the area, Coe College and Mount Mercy University, with the potential to alter its character.
'They are a catalyst, the (CeMar) trail is a catalyst, and Cedar Lake is a catalyst,” said Erger, owner of the Shores Central Park building at 700 16th St. NE. 'All of these things for this neighborhood are a really big deal. This could be the next funky arts district in Cedar Rapids.”
Even the city's 'next NewBo,” a destination neighborhood of hip independent businesses and night life.
'If you have various interested parties who are doing their share, it starts to change the fabric of this area of the city,” Coe spokesman Rod Pritchard said.
'I think we're already seeing it,” said Carol Sindelar, president of Mound View Neighborhood Association. 'Revitalization, is that the right word?”
Coe's $21 million athletic and recreation center is on schedule for completion this summer. The project includes classrooms, a student fitness center, a weight room and wrestling practice facility, and a new gymnasium for Kohawk basketball and volleyball. Coe also just finished $3 million in renovations at Hickok Hall.
The new gym opens Monday for a youth sports camp.
'I'd hope it would make the neighborhood surrounding the campus more desirable,” Coe President Dave McInally said. 'Between Coe and Mount Mercy, it's like you're buying a home near parks with theater and musical activities and all sorts of things that will pull you in.”
While Coe's big project is within its campus, Mount Mercy's extends its reach into the neighborhood. Its $16 million Robert W. Plaster Athletic Complex with baseball, softball and soccer fields and track covers 22 acres northwest of E Avenue NE between Tomahawk Park and 17th Street.
'We'd love to have a vibrant neighborhood that connects these two campuses,” said Mount Mercy President Laurie Hamen. 'We're looking forward to how this just brings the whole neighborhood up.”
Also on track for completion this summer, Mount Mercy's project will host the school's teams in soccer, track and field, baseball and softball. There's also facilities for lacrosse and football, two sports Mount Mercy doesn't yet have.
Hamen said the university's board decided not to launch a football program after an 18-month study.
'We don't have the space to bring all the additional students” for football - well over 100 for a team,” Hamen said. The school will take another look in 2020, she added.
Both projects are the largest ever for Coe, with enrollment about 1,400, and Mount Mercy, with about 1,900 enrollment. Officials at both schools expect their new facilities will boost their involvement with non-student neighbors, building on current summer reading, educational and recreational programs.
'We're only in session 30 weeks a year and that leaves us plenty of opportunities,” McInally said. 'We don't have specific plans put together yet, but we will have some terrific indoor and outdoor facilities.”
Mount Mercy's new facility will be used by its JumpStart program, which partners with social service agencies to provide youth recreational programs. Hamen said the school will provide financial aid for low-income students to attend sports camps and conferences at the campus, as well as a new summer evening activity program.
The latest extension of the CeMar Trail runs along the Mount Mercy complex. The bike-and-hike artery eventually will connect Cedar Lake and Marion, but the new section will be a quick, easy way to get between Mount Mercy, Coe and the Mound View area without a vehicle.
The new trail complements one of the neighborhood's advantages, said Bruce Nesmith, a Coe political science professor.
'I would argue that Mound View is the most walkable neighborhood in Cedar Rapids,” said Nesmith, who studies urban design and is a founder of the Corridor Urbanists group. 'There's a lot of stuff you can do that's right there, either as part of your day-to-day life or something that's fun.”
Walkability is a crucial feature of New Urbanism, a philosophy that also favors a mix of property uses to create employment opportunities near affordable housing.
'If people can walk to their job, that makes things a lot easier,” Nesmith said.
'It's saturated with work force housing (built) at a time when no one had cars,” neighborhood resident Tom Podzimek said.
Podzimek and Nesmith note Mound View has another advantage New Bohemia lacked: a ready supply of affordable housing.
'Mound View was sustainable before that was cool,” said neighborhood association president Sindelar, who's lived on D Avenue NE for about 25 years. 'You can live in Mound View and walk to work, you can catch the bike trail, you can go to events at the colleges. The housing is affordable.”
Recognizing the neighborhood's potential, the city began developing a College District Action Plan to guide and nurture future development. An informal focus group of property owners and residents already meets about four times a year.
The city process begins with public meetings in July, with a final plan ready for City Council approval by September 2018, said Adam Lindenlaub, planner for Cedar Rapids Community Development.
'We talked to both (colleges) and one of the things we heard from both was, what's their interaction with the neighborhood?” Lindenlaub said. 'That can help them make it easy to attract students, and that blends in to what we were hearing from residents.”
Property owners in the study area - bounded by First Avenue, 20th Street/27th Street, Elmhurst Drive, and Oakland Road - will receive postcard notification of the public meetings.
The planning process includes the Uptown District, the predominantly commercial area along and a block either side of First Avenue between 10th and 20th streets. Coe's campus is part of Uptown, and Pritchard is on the Uptown board.
Phil Wasta, a founding Uptown board member, said the group was formed to take on safety and crime issues. The establishment of a police substation and property improvements, including Coe's purchase and rehabilitation of the troubled Hampton Courts apartments, have improved safety, he said.
'With safety and security come businesses that feel like there's less to worry about,” said Wasta, who with his brother owns five parcels in the 1200 block of First Avenue. 'The next thing we want to see is development. We're starting to hear more of an undercurrent of developers showing interest.”
Wasta said Podzimek and Erger approached Uptown's board a few years ago.
'Because they're contiguous, it would be smarter to join efforts and collaborate,” Wasta said. 'Our whole thing was safety and security, theirs was economic development. It was kind of a mind-set shift for us.”
When the city announced its planning process, 'we said ‘Great, now there's a unified effort,'” Wasta said.
'The city should be interested in planning what is happening in all these areas,” Erger said. 'The development is going to happen, and we maybe don't have all the parts figured out.”
Erger bought Shores Central Park, built in the 1920s as headquarters of Shores Mueller Co., catalog retailer of cooking and veterinary supplies, in 2004. He renovated the building to house his own business, Cabinet Studio Inc., and other businesses and offices.
'It was something we took a chance on,” he said. 'We always saw this as in kind of a transition from industrial. We thought we were in on the front end, but not much happened. The flood came, and everything around the city changed. It never really caught on. (Now) we have a feeling things are changing.”
Erger is finishing space in the Shores building to house a restaurant or brewpub.
Podzimek bought the former Maresh Sheet Metal Works at 907 17th St. NE for his business, Benchmark Construction, in 2012.
'We bought it because it was cheap. For about two years, I had buyer's remorse,” recalled Podzimek, a former City Council member who lives about two blocks away.
Podzimek feels a turnaround coming. The old Maresh building hosts meetings of the Corridor Urbanists and the neighborhood advisory committee.
'This is kind of post-industrial chic,” he said.
Sindelar said she's glad to see her neighborhood realize its potential. But she hopes the planners and developers keep its residents in mind.
'They need to remember that people live here,” she said. 'We're looking forward to development, but we also want to save the neighborhood, the feel of the community.”
'What's going to help people in Mound View is investing in that area and recovering the livable neighborhood that was once there,” Nesmith said. 'A funky subdivision for upper-middle-class people is fine for the people who live there, but it's not for the people who are excluded.”
Factories as resources
As supporters of northeast Cedar Rapids's College District assess the neighborhood's development potential, some idled factory buildings may be a resource.
Industry grew up around the railroad tracks that linked Marion to downtown Cedar Rapids and eventually Kansas City. Working-class housing followed in the blocks on each side of the industrial corridor. The CeMar Trail now runs over much of the old roadbed.
There's still a stretch of light industry and business along E Avenue NE, including Janda Electric and TreeHouse, which packages private-label breakfast cereal in the former Ralston/ConAgra plant at 601 16th St. NE.
A neighborhood presence for 75 years was Cedarapids Inc., which built highway construction equipment in several buildings. Once employing 900 locally, the business was sold in 1999 to Connecticut-based Terex, which shut down local production in 2010.
Terex property north of E Avenue NE was purchased by Mount Mercy University for its new athletic complex. The university also bought former Terex offices and a warehouse at 909 17th St. NE to house coaches' offices, weight-training facilities and meeting space for teams and staff.
JW Bell manufactures and rebuilds aggregate-processing equipment in the big blue steel building at 1755 I Ave. NE, overlooking the Mount Mercy fields. CEO Scott Cummings said he purchased his company's 16-acre site from Terex in a joint deal with the college.
'It was a working relationship,” he said.
Street improvements in conjunction with Mount Mercy's project have improved access to the plant. Cummings said JW Bell has 51 employees, a few living within a few blocks of the plant.
'This always was a manufacturing facility,” Cummings said. 'It's just more noticeable now, since the change in the landscape around it.”
That leaves the former Cedarrapids/Terex offices and manufacturing facility at 916 16th St. NE. Still owned by Terex, the buildings, one dating to 1911, occupy most of the block between 16th and 17th streets.
Tom Erger, owner of nearby Shores Central Park building, said the old plant could be affordable space for everything from residential lofts to small shops.
'That's four acres of property that could be rehabbed into housing and shops and mixed-use development,” he said.
Terex did not return calls seeking comment for this article.