116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / Opinion / Staff Columnists
Empty downtowns are a natural space for needed urban housing
In my last article about the benefits of boosting urban populations in older northern cities in the East and Midwest, there is one large concern I did not have space to address: gentrification. Generally, the process by which current residents of a neighborhood are displaced and forced to live elsewhere due to newer, wealthier residents moving in. Fears over gentrification and displacement are significant motivators for people to oppose new development in their neighborhoods, which can delay the construction of new housing for several years or even cancel it outright. Although there is a growing body of evidence that the impact of increasing the quantity of housing does not amplify gentrification or displacement, and can indeed arrest it by providing more options for people to live in – and more competition among landlords – it is nevertheless a real concern with political implications. One way to sidestep this, while still fulfilling the goal of increasing urban populations, is to concentrate development in areas that currently do not have many residents, and on the whole have been on rough times for quite a while now.
The places to which I am referring to are American downtowns. Knocked down a peg ever since department stores decamped for suburban shopping malls, industrial factories shuttered, and corporate headquarters were relocated to distant office parks, things have only gotten worse with the rise of work-from-home setups as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which seems to have permanently removed swaths of workers commuting to downtown offices, having weekday lunches at restaurants and cafes, or running errands there as well. The result is desolate downtowns with wide boulevards and tall buildings, but empty streets – in some ways, bearing similarities to the exposition of a post-apocalyptic film.
In the Twin Cities-based MinnPost, writer Bill Lindecke similarly concludes there is a need for more housing in downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul, although from more of a social perspective. He envisions downtown residents as a replacement for downtown commuters, which would help provide customers for business, and also help create a safer environment. Referred to as “eyes on the street” by urbanist Jane Jacobs, the theory posits that one of the most significant deterrents of crime and other antisocial behaviors is not police roving the streets, but instead simply having people on the sidewalks looking out for one another, should a child become lost, someone slip and fall, or to reduce one’s license to litter on the streets. While Lindecke wrote in the context of Minnesota’s two largest cities, it is easy to substitute in the quiet downtowns of Iowa’s largest cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
Creating more space for people to live downtown could also be achieved without relying on expensive, and potentially ineffective conversions of offices to apartments, by building on top of already existing vacant land: parking. A cursory glance at Des Moines or Cedar Rapids on Google Maps reveals several blocks which are either mostly or completely vacant, save for surface parking lots. Polk County, where Des Moines is located, is notorious for having allocated more land to parking (18 square miles in all) than to actual buildings (17 square miles). In Cedar Rapids, this is particularly egregious in the MedQuarter, the branding for the area in between St. Luke’s and Mercy Hospital – envisioned as a destination for medical care and more, but currently not much besides perhaps a clinic or lab per block, and a sea of parking for the rest. Evidence of people once calling this place home can be seen on 6th St. SE and 5th Ave. SE – Bethel AME Church still stands there, but virtually all of the homes from which people would walk to services to are now long gone.
However, there are limitations to this approach. The development patterns of major Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, where much new development has been concentrated in major urban cores and thoroughfares, are instructive. Sometimes referred to as the “grand bargain”, in exchange for keeping the neighborhoods of politically influential landowners restricted to detached houses only, zoning for taller apartment buildings in these cities has often been restricted to major roads and downtowns. For a long time, this has resulted in curious scenes where 20+ story high-rises are virtually right next door to one- and two-story houses, as the only legal viable way to accommodate the population growth both cities have experienced.
However, as this limited developable land is beginning to run out, vacancy rates run low, and rents continue to spike, it appears that this “grand bargain” may be on borrowed time. Furthermore, concentrating space for new growth on major, busy streets rather than quieter local streets also faces some health and environmental limitations. Not only are major streets – which often converge in downtown – noisier and experience more pollution from car emissions, concentrating the development of apartment buildings on these major streets – as is the case in Vancouver and Saint Paul, for example – results in a greater number of people exposed to these harms. In both cities, this zoning decision was made not with consideration of what would be healthiest or most beneficial for the city, but instead to placate long-time landowners who could muster political will to block new development from taking place next to their backyards.
But for now, most American cities are years, if not decades, behind their Canadian counterparts in densifying their downtowns. The best time to start doing so was years ago; the second-best time is now. Even with decades of stagnation and decay, downtowns often still have good ‘bones’ to them – streets are laid out in a compact, walkable grid, and access to essential infrastructure like hospitals and public transit hubs are very close by. Although seas of empty parking spaces and empty lots are in many ways reminders of what was lost at the altar of the automobile and the suburb, from a glass-half-full perspective they can also be a key to a brighter urban future – spaces for more homes for more people, without having to demolish anyone else’s first.
Austin Wu is a Gazette editorial fellow. email@example.com
Opinion content represents the viewpoint of the author or The Gazette editorial board. You can join the conversation by submitting a letter to the editor or guest column or by suggesting a topic for an editorial to firstname.lastname@example.org