CEDAR RAPIDS — The long-vacant downtown property known as the “Banjo Block” will be the site of what City Council members expect to be a “game-changer” development that will infuse new life into the surrounding area.
On Tuesday, the Cedar Rapids council approved a resolution authorizing the execution of an agreement with Indianapolis-based TWG Development to build a $52 million project with commercial and residential space on the block at Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street SE, which is adjacent to the Cedar Rapids Public Library and Greene Square. The block is named after the Banjo Refrigeration business that operated there.
“I see this as a real keystone development right in that immediate part of the downtown, and it’s a perfect development for an area where you have the library across the street,” said council member Scott Overland. “You’ve got a significant park square almost across the street as well as easy access to all kinds of amenities in the downtown area. I think this will really be a game changer right in that immediate area.”
The four-story, approximately 200,000 square-foot project would feature 211 rental apartments — primarily one- and two-bedroom units — 1,176 square feet of ground-level commercial space; 147 parking stalls and amenities, including a rooftop patio.
Under the agreement, the developer would enter into a lease with Park Cedar Rapids to provide no less than 150 off-street parking spaces.
The developer also will work with local historic nonprofit organizations to salvage architectural materials from existing buildings and incorporate those through plaques, photographs or other means to honor the history of the block.
The plan calls for the developer to employ four on-site workers in addition to workers who end up being employed in the commercial space.
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Cedar Rapids will reimburse up to 100 percent of the incremental taxes generated by the project, reaching a total present-day value of $6.5 million, or until the city makes 16 payments of the tax increments.
But the state may grant workforce housing tax credits, said Caleb Mason, city economic development analyst. If those are approved, he said, the city would reduce its incentives based on what’s provided by the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
Under the agreement, construction will start no later than July 31 and end within 24 months.
Earlier plan falters
This proposal wasn’t the city’s first go at crafting plans for the site.
The initial developer — SC Bodner, also from Indiana — proposed a more than $30 million plan before it withdrew the proposal in 2019.
Some council members and developers questioned the city’s plan to use a “community benefit” provision to give a 20-year tax abatement, worth about $5.2 million, to that project. That would have been twice the city’s standard 10-year tax break through its economic development policy.
There also was skepticism over whether city residents could support the rents being considered, which were at the high end of the market.
“Within a year or so, we have another exciting development going on the site, so I think it’s a testament to our staff and our city manager’s office as well as our council to keep going until we get a development that we like that will benefit the entire downtown area,” Overland said.
Council lauds project
Council member Dale Todd, whose district encompasses downtown, said this demonstrates “the power of the library in being a catalyst.”
“When you add this with the Guaranty Bank redevelopment proposal, this is going to put a lot of mass in a part of downtown that really has needed it for a long time,” Todd said.
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Todd was referring to the proposal to work with developer Mike Whalen with the Heart of America Group to restore the historic Guaranty Bank Building and build two hotels under the Marriott flag on most of the block at Third Street and Third Avenue SE. The roughly $50 million project would bring about 200 additional hotel rooms to support larger conventions at the nearby DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex and draw visitors to downtown businesses.
Council member Ashley Vanorny, who sits on the city’s Development Committee, said this is “wonderful placement” for a housing project.
“I’m sure council shares my imagination in just seeing not only the library — which is just exquisite and we’re so lucky to have that — but also just seeing Greene Square fully utilized,” Vanorny said.
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