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'Banjo block' project latest high-dollar pitch for Cedar Rapids

$32.3M mixed-use project proposed near Greene Square downtown

A rendering depicts a proposed mixed-use development for a downtown Cedar Rapids block featuring the Banjo Refrigeration building. (Courtesy of city of Cedar Rapids)
A rendering depicts a proposed mixed-use development for a downtown Cedar Rapids block featuring the Banjo Refrigeration building. (Courtesy of city of Cedar Rapids)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — An Indiana company is proposing a $32.3 million redevelopment of what’s been dubbed the “Banjo block” in honor of the long-standing Banjo Refrigeration building, just east of the downtown public library — signaling a new life with nearly 200 new apartments on the long dormant block.

SC Bodner Co. of Indianapolis wants to construct a five-story, 186,000-square-foot mixed-use building and a four-story. 68,000-square-foot parking garage taking up the full block at Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street SE.

“It is important because it is adjacent to our beautiful Greene Square, a number of historic buildings, the library across the street from the site, and near the arts center,” Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said. “It is an important location and one that has needed to be developed for decades.”

The City Council is scheduled to consider a resolution to move forward with negotiating tax incentives for the project when it meets at noon Tuesday at City Hall, 101 First St. SE.

The facility would have 184 market-rate apartments of one, two and three bedrooms, and eight two-bedroom, two-story townhomes.

Roughly 4,000 square feet of amenity space includes a workout facility, bike shop and storage. The structure would include a rooftop deck, patio, an interior pool courtyard, 222 parking spaces and 1,000 square feet for retail with a small outdoor plaza facing Greene Square.

The project would begin construction by March 1, 2020, and be complete about Sept. 30, 2021, according to information in the City Council packet.

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The council will consider providing an 100 percent tax abatement based on increased property value for 20 years, worth an estimated $5.2 million. The time frame is the maximum allowed under state law and twice as long as the standard city incentive for this type of project.

But if state tax credits are awarded, city participation would be reduced by the value of the state incentives, according to the packet.

Ron Corbett, the former Cedar Rapids Mayor and current business retention and expansion strategist for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said the project adds needed downtown market-rate housing and addresses what long had been seen as a void.

“The trend continues for more and more people wanting to live in a downtown setting,” Corbett said. “Secondly, this block has been on the radar for development for two decades and to finally see something of this magnitude is very impressive.”

Corbett was mayor when the City Council voted to relocate the public library next to Greene Square after the 2008 flood as well as tackle a $1.9 million renovation of the park. Those decisions are paying dividends now as developers are gravitating to the area, and Corbett hopes it spurs interest in more underused properties.

The SC Bodner project is the latest high-dollar private investment proposed in recent months. The Heart of America Group is in the early stages of a $51 million hotel development on the Guaranty Bank Building block, at Third Street and Third Avenue SE, and Landover Corp. is in the early stages of a $28 million redevelopment of the old Loftus Lumber site at Third Street and Ninth Avenue SE in the NewBo District.

Each of these properties were long unused or were underused.

The Banjo block is named for a company that had a presence there for about 100 years, said Mark Stoffer Hunter, a Cedar Rapids historian.

The space is largely unused. The Melsha family owns most of the buildings there. Officials had met with Leon “Tunnie” Melsha about the block over the years. He died in 2018.

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Developer Steve Emerson owns part of the block and said he has agreed to sell. The 2001 Development Corp., an investment group led by longtime local business leaders friendly to the city, is expected to sell the old Dupaco Credit Union property.

Stoffer Hunter said the corner facing Greene Square had held a drugstore and long served as a “hangout” by the old Washington High School. He appreciates seeing the project open to paying homage to history.

“I don’t know if any of the buildings on the block reach the level of historical landmarks that must be saved,” Stoffer Hunter said. “But the developers are very open and if all the buildings are demolished, they are very much in support of thorough documentation and options of what to do with the contents.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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