Government

Cedar Rapids considers sweetening historic property incentives as advocates urge stronger protections

Liz Martin/The Gazette

Beth DeBoom salvages wood flooring Sept. 27 from a building at 2218 First Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids.  The 101-year-old former home of John and Laurel Ely, which more recently been used for offices, was torn down days later to make way for a new dental office.
Liz Martin/The Gazette Beth DeBoom salvages wood flooring Sept. 27 from a building at 2218 First Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids. The 101-year-old former home of John and Laurel Ely, which more recently been used for offices, was torn down days later to make way for a new dental office.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Historic preservation advocates are pressuring local government to intervene more to save historic properties after a wave of demolitions by private developers in the past several months.

Save CR Heritage has started a petition requesting the city no longer provide subsidies to developers that demolish historic buildings and that developers receiving incentives be required to incorporate historic buildings or move them at their own expense. The current historic renovation incentives are not effective enough, they said.

“It seems like in Cedar Rapids we want to wipe the slate clean, and it seems cheaper to tear things down than find ways to save them,” said Cindy Hadish, a board member for Save CR Heritage and author of the petition.

Hadish, who previously wrote for The Gazette, and fellow board members said they hope to raise awareness about historic buildings but are not against development. But, it is important to not abandon the city’s history in the process. City officials have met with Save CR as well as Friends of Historic Preservation and are working on plans to strengthen historic preservation efforts, including possibly more lucrative tax incentives for developers.

In the past year, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission has placed demolition holds on 17 historically significant properties, several of which received public incentives, according to Save CR. They’ve all been demolished.

Among the demolitions:

The 1916 John M. and Laurel Ely house on First Avenue NE to make way for an office building and would have been eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to Save CR. It was a “rare example of the Prairie School style architecture in Cedar Rapids,” according to the group. In recent weeks. volunteers scoured the house to salvage what they could.

The 1923 Bever building, 1923 Faulkes building, and a 1920s service station most recently called Albert Auto on First Avenue NE to make way for the $11 million Skogman Co. headquarters. The State Historic Society said the demolitions would weaken the historic district, according to Save CR. The project was awarded an estimated $800,000 in city tax breaks and $750,000 in state redevelopment tax credits. Protesters held a vigil before the demolition of the Bever building, which had been underused for years.

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The 1885-built Clark mansion on Third Avenue SE to make way for a parking ramp as part of a $30 million Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa expansion. Last-ditch efforts to move what had become a subdivided apartment house were too late. The city agreed to cover the cost of the $9.5 million parking ramp.

The Music Loft building, which previously was Holland Home Bakery, McRaith’s ice cream shop and the Cross & Co. grocery store, according to Save CR, along with four 1900s-era mansions, were demolished for a new retail strip. City staff had reported the structures were not historically significant.

Scars from history lost as 1,200 homes and 200 commercial buildings were demolished in short order after the 2008 flood still linger among the group as they fight to protect history that remains.

Members of the Historic Preservation Commission have at times been frustrated by their lack of a meaningful voice.

The commission can issue 60-day holds on demolition permits, but it is typically too late to save a building, said Mark Stoffer Hunter, commission chairman. At that point, they salvage what they can and document the history before the demolition goes through.

“Let us know these things earlier, so we can have more successful outcomes,” Stoffer Hunter said during a discussion about a PCI demolition request earlier this year. “Developers need to realize time is needed when considering historic preservation.”

Jennifer Pratt, community development director, pointed out some successes in historic preservation.

The Knutson Building, on the verge of demolition multiple times, was restored into the Chelsea, an upscale apartment building, as was the Mott Building. The old White Elephant building and the last remaining house in the Flats neighborhood were moved before they could be demolished.

But, she acknowledged the losses, as well.

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She said staff are working to update economic development incentives, which ultimately would need City Council approval, possibly next month, to help historic preservation.

Under consideration is a 10-year, 100 percent tax break if developers incorporate or move a historic building. The current incentive focuses on renovations of historic properties.

The proposed incentives would allow a developer to conceptualize around historic preservation at the earliest stages of planning, she said.

Another effort is a historic asset inventory being created by a subcommittee of the Historic Preservation Commission with representatives of Save CR and Friends of Historic Preservation. The list will identify and categorize historic properties to help advocates pre-emptively recognize properties at the greatest risk, Pratt said.

For example, advocates could identify important older buildings that have sat vacant or underused for a long time and find ways to attract private reinvestment in the building, she said.

Another strategy is promoting local historic landmark designations, which provide protections against future demolition, she said.

There’s a balancing act of preserving historic buildings, private property rights and supporting development, Pratt said. Developers’ plans typically are far along when the city gets approached, and while they discuss options to save older buildings, it’s often — but not always — too late to make significant changes, she said. And, the city can’t force it, she said.

“We do know historic assets make our community unique,” she said. “That sense of place that communities rely on to attract visitors and attract and keep residents, these assets are critical ... but at the end of the day, this is private property so we do need their help in protecting property.”

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

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