CEDAR RAPIDS — While the New Bohemia District gets the buzz as an up-and-coming trendy neighborhood with one new development after the other, its sister district directly across the Cedar River, Czech Village, has numerous upcoming projects that could transform how people think about and use the small retail and cultural hub honoring the city’s Czech heritage.
Ahead are a greenway where a neighborhood once stood, a rebuilt Riverside Roundhouse, trails at Mount Trashmore and a spruced-up river front.
Those with a vested interest are imagining what else is possible.
One such idea is actually an old one: a pedestrian mall.
“If we want to continue to be a place where people want to visit and live and thrive, we should think about having a ped mall in our city,” said Steve Shriver, who has been at the center of NewBo revitalization and recently invested in SOKO, a gear shop and outfitter due to open in September in Czech Village. “The idea is also getting people to spend more time in the district. Right now, it’s really limited. Stop in, shop, and leave. If we can get to the point where people are spending four hours or more in Czech Village, NewBo, Kingston Village, you are really changing behaviors.”
Cedar Rapids officials are not optimistic about the idea for a pedestrian mall — it conflicts with the aim of the recent 16th Avenue extension in NewBo — but they do want forward-looking ideas for both Czech Village and NewBo.
City officials have begun engaging stakeholders from both Czech Village and NewBo in what they are calling an “area action plan” to think strategically for the future when it comes to developing open land, improving connectivity, streetscapes and joint marketing and branding.
Similar efforts have occurred for the Mount Vernon Road corridor and Northwest Neighborhood, while an action plan is in the works for the College District near Coe College and Mount Mercy University. The plans identify priorities in design and use that can help shape policy for public spending, design standards and cues for developers about what the public prefers.
NewBo and Czech Village stakeholders met for the first time this month, and have a second upcoming summit. A public rollout is expected in late summer or early fall.
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“A ton of planning has already been done in the area, and we certainly want to incorporate all of that into the foundation and come up with a shared vision,” said Jennifer Pratt, the city’s community development director. “There’s a lot of momentum occurring with the levees being built and people seeing the next step into the future.”
The recently completed Sinclair levee on the NewBo side, an under-construction levee protecting part of Czech Village south of 16th Avenue SW, and the 16th Avenue SE extension and roundabout are expected to unlock several acres of bare land for redevelopment.
Stakeholders can think about how that development should occur and if there are specific land uses that should be prioritized. Cyclists and pedestrians frequent the trails and businesses in the area, so one goal may be to ensure development doesn’t erode their access or safety.
At least six formal organizations are active in the area: Czech Village-New Bohemia self-supported municipal improvement district, Czech Village New Bohemia Main Street, Oak Hill Jackson Neighborhood Association, Czech Village Association, the New Bohemia Group and the Southside Investment Board.
Pratt’s task is getting the groups together, examining what in some cases is extensive planning already done and seeing what common ground they have.
Dale Todd, the District 3 City Council member and member of the Southside Investment Board, said a number of plans that had been on the shelf for years — such as the 16th Avenue extension, a pedestrian bridge project being called the Sinclair Smokestack and flood levees — are starting to come to fruition and the question people have been asking for the past two years is: “Where do we go next?”
“How do we get to the next level? How do we turn downtown, Czech Village and NewBo into a destination experience?” Todd asked. “Cities need plans and direction. That’s how you leverage funding.”
While Todd said he sees a lot of common interests, historically, a rivalry has existed between Czech Village and NewBo, which has challenged branding. Visitors often don’t see a difference between downtown, NewBo, Czech Village, the MedQuarter or Kingston Village, he said. They just see it as one area, he said.
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The idea of the pedestrian mall has bubbled up periodically since the 1980s, and once again some business owners and district users have been talking informally about the main block of Czech Village — 16th Avenue SW from A Street to C Street — as a pedestrian-only zone, thus blocking the road to vehicle traffic.
Quinton McClain, co-owner of Lion Bridge Brewing Co., a popular newer stop in the historic area, said a pedestrian mall could “play well” on 16th Avenue SW because most of the parking is on the exterior of the village and it’s one of the few small districts where there’s a stretch of buildings with no big gaps.
“I don’t see too much harm,” he said. “If the area were closed off and developed, it could be a cool feature that draws more people and unique development. It might spur some properties that are empty — where there was a building and now there isn’t — it might create some interest.”
Some business owners are resistant, not wanting to eliminate convenience for their customers.
While people may envision pedestrian malls in Iowa City, Burlington, Vt. or Boulder, Colo., many pedestrian malls have been removed or repurposed.
A 2013 study called “The Experiment of American Pedestrian Malls” prepared for the Fresno Future Conference at Fresno State University found pedestrian malls in the United States have an 89 percent rate of failure, and among the 11 percent that are successful, 80 percent are in populations under 100,000.
“I have mixed emotions about it,” said Michelle Bell, co-owner of White Lion Treasures, 87 16th Ave. SW and president of Friends of Czech Village. “I think people drive very unsafely down there. On the flip side, some of our businesses benefit from people driving down and seeing the store frontage. That’s how we get a lot of our business. People who come down for a specific thing and come through our neighborhood.”
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