Government

After uproar, new Cedar Rapids sidewalk plan targets areas in need

City could approve plan later this year

Cracks are seen in a sidewalk in the Oakhill-Jackson neighborhood in Cedar Rapids on Monday, June 24, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Cracks are seen in a sidewalk in the Oakhill-Jackson neighborhood in Cedar Rapids on Monday, June 24, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — After a rocky few years of filling in sidewalk gaps in resistant neighborhoods — where some residents embraced the sidewalks after the fact — Cedar Rapids is developing a master plan to prioritize sidewalks as part of a broader vision of becoming more pedestrian-friendly for all residents.

The biggest change, if the pedestrian master plan is approved later this year by the Cedar Rapids City Council, would be prioritizing 10 areas identified as most in need — based on feedback from at least 1,200 residents and analysis of factors such as vehicle-pedestrian collisions. The analysis was conducted by consultant Toole Design, with offices in Madison, Wis.

“The idea is to understand where the high needs are and where we can really make an impact and make a neighborhood walkable where they are not right now,” said Brenna Fall, Cedar Rapids’ capital improvements manager.

The three areas at the top of the list: The downtown core, the area along First Avenue near Coe College and Hy-Vee, and the area near Collins Road and Council Street NE. If the master plan is approved, city budgets would be developed in the coming years based on the plan’s priorities.

Residents can review and weigh in on a draft of the master plan at Cedar-Rapids.org by searching “pedestrian master plan.”

Details of the master plan

The master plan identifies 439 sidewalk gaps, 38 pedestrian crossing projects and 14 sidewalk buffer projects where a sidewalk exists but is too narrow or constrained for people to feel comfortable.

The full scope of work, in today’s dollars, is estimated to cost $35 million, Fall said. When considering just $200,000 is currently budgeted annually for filling sidewalk gaps as part of the city’s capital improvement budget, the effort could take decades. The master plan does not identify a timeline.

Council member Scott Olson, who is chairman of the city’s infrastructure committee, which heard about the plan on Tuesday, urged tackling the sidewalk list more aggressively, noting the city had cultivated a host of contractors through Americans with Disabilities Act compliance work who are well-trained for sidewalk work.

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“Hopefully you agree, and the staff agrees that $200,000 a year isn’t enough,” Olson said.

Fall and Jen Winter, the city’s public works director, said a variety of other sources of money — such as state or federal grants or funds to make Cedar Rapids more accessible for those with disabilities — also are available for sidewalk work.

Money from the Paving for Progress street repair program can be used in some cases but is not used in many of the projects, Winter said.

Past city policies and opposition

Cedar Rapids first adopted a sidewalk policy in 2010 and updated it in 2014 in an attempt to close gaps where lapses had left all or parts of neighborhoods disconnected from the sidewalk network.

The city backed away from the initial strategy of prioritizing sidewalk installation whenever there was an adjacent infrastructure project, such as street or sewer repairs, in part because resources had been so tight it made little sense to prioritize where the sidewalks weren’t wanted.

Residents, such as along 34th Street SE and near Bever Park and Jefferson High School, staged opposition to sidewalk installations. In some cases the city backed off, while in others the sidewalk projects moved forward.

By 2017, city leaders revised the policy by removing the cost burden from residential property owners, although commercial and industrial property owners still must cover 50 percent of the costs. Secondly, connectivity to schools, parks, commerce and public transit were given priority.

Council member Tyler Olson noted the “clear need” to continue with the sidewalk effort.

“The fact that 1,200 people decided to get engaged shows the community is interested in getting connected to sidewalks and improving it,” he said.

Julie Perez, who lives off Milburn Road NE, is urging safety in prioritizing sidewalks.

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Milburn lacks sidewalks and is the arterial street for several newer residential streets. Parents and children are left to contend with traffic or walk in a ditch, she said.

“When you see somebody coming down the road at 45 miles an hour, you think, ‘If they look down because they dropped their phone, I’m going to be prepared to jump in the ditch,’” Perez said. “That’s the kind of safety issue that we have. And that really needs to take precedence over any other kind of thing.”

She criticized prioritizing more resources for downtown, which she said already has ample sidewalks.

City leaders noted Milburn is at least partially a county-owned road, and a draft of the sidewalk master plan identifies safety as the second most heavily weighted factor behind resident demand. Coordinating with other scheduled projects, cost and high-traffic volume roads rounded out the top five for priorities.

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

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