CEDAR RAPIDS — A development partnership wants to repurpose a vacant city-owned building, most recently used as the Ambroz Recreation Center, into a senior housing cooperative.
Forest & Fish Development LLC has proposed a $9.5 million housing complex called Vernon Heights Estates with 29 market-rate condominiums for people age 55 and older that would reuse the building, plus build an addition at 2000 Mount Vernon Rd. SE. Buchanan Elementary also once operated in the building, which opened in the early 1900s.
“I like very much ... creating that sense of place around this particular building and hanging onto its historic value and really addressing a need in the community for senior housing,” said Ann Poe, a Cedar Rapids City Council member.
Officials tried multiple times with little luck to draw interest in the property since it was vacated in 2016 when the new Northwest Recreation Center opened. The city had worked with neighbors to develop an action plan for the busy Mount Vernon Road corridor, and putting the 1.6 acre property back to use was one of the goals.
The old building had numerous accessibility deficiencies, among other issues.
City staff took a new approach in the latest attempt. An architect working for free provided possible concepts of how the building and site might be repurposed, and that appeared to help generate interest, according to city staff.
“We received two proposals on Aug. 9 of this year and I would characterize them as two solid proposals, which we were happy to receive,” said Caleb Mason, a city economic development analyst.
A review panel of city staff and representatives from the neighborhood, the Historic Preservation Commission, commercial banking and the architect-developer recommended the plan from Forest & Fish, which is a development partnership of Bart Woods, Josh Bass and Jim Angstman.
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Designs show two buildings, a parking lot and landscaping. Plans call for a common area inside with a full kitchen; six efficiencies; seven one-bedroom units; 16 two-bedroom units; and 38 parking stalls, including 20 underground and 18 surface-level spots.
On Tuesday, the Cedar Rapids City Council supported moving forward with the plan. The vote allows staff to negotiate economic development incentives.
City staff has recommended tax increment financing incentives, in which 100 percent of property taxes generated from increased value on the land would be forgiven for 10 years, worth an estimated $1.37 million total or about $137,800 per year. The property still would generate about $160,100 total over that time based on the existing value.
Also, staff is recommending providing the property and building at no cost. The assessed value is $429,200.
The public support would amount to about 19 percent of the total project cost. The council did not weigh in on the financing plan.
During the meeting Tuesday, Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart described the project as a “great reuse of that building and repurposing the land itself.”
“I am glad to see something happen with the property,” he said.
The housing complex still must get approved through the rezoning process and the incentives must be finalized.
A tentative spring construction start has been identified, but a more specific timeline should emerge during negotiations for the economic development agreement, Mason said.
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He noted Forest & Fish is not expected to seek historic tax credits because the inside would need too much alteration to qualify, he said. However, the contractor is expected to retain the character of the exterior and restore some finishes that had been closed up, Mason said.
Council member Susie Weinacht said the developer has been “faithful to historic preservation in the past” and she has “no doubt” about the quality of work.
“I appreciate them stepping up for this property, which was really challenging over the years as we were figuring out what was going to happen with Ambroz,” Weinacht said.
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