CEDAR RAPIDS — When Lindsey Podzimek, 35, looks at the empty spaces under the 2-mile Interstate 380 flyover above downtown Cedar Rapids, she doesn’t just see the dingy underbelly of a roadway or an invisible boundary to another part of town.
She sees “untapped” possibilities. Maybe it could be used for a skateboard park. Someone else suggested a dog park for one of the grassy swathes between 15th and 16th Avenue SW.
Rethinking what urban planners dub “the understate” recently sparked the imaginations of an informal community group called Corridor Urbanism, of which Podzimek participates.
“We always thought the under part of the interstate would be a good place for a skate park, not all of it, but part of it,” said Podzimek, who is co-owner of Eduskate, a skateboard shop at 208 12th Ave SE. “Over by the Juvenile Justice Center (834 Second St. SW) would be perfect. There’s never any cars there and it’s paved.”
Around the country, understates are being repurposed into biking and walking trails, basketball courts, parks, venues for block parties and other uses. A recent article in Curbed highlighted 11 “ugly underpasses” transformed into “community hot spots.”
In Cedar Rapids, the understate has been used for parking lots — both busy ones near Quaker Oats and empty ones south of downtown — material storage such as snow and pallets, or nothing at all.
That could change.
“We’re excited about the opportunity and how it could improve the aesthetics of the community,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said.
It’s not a new concept locally. “Addressing the understate” was a recommendation from the “Vision Downtown Cedar Rapids” framework plan, which was created in 2007 and updated in December 2017.
Officials are working with consultants to study what has been done elsewhere and plan to consult the Iowa Department of Transportation, neighbors and users of the areas to see what would be safe and could work in Cedar Rapids.
Space under the interstate has a few attributes that lend themselves to different activities. For one, they are already noisy. So loud activities such as dogs barking or skateboards clacking wouldn’t be a problem. Second, they have built-in shelter.
“You’ve got a roof and an area where a little bit of noise is not going to bother anyone,” said Daniel Gibbins, Cedar Rapids parks superintendent.
The understate is one of the more intriguing aspects of a new citywide right of way planning initiative being undertaken by the community development and public works departments. The idea is to build uniformity and consistency for how public right of way, which makes up about 10 percent of land in Cedar Rapids, is used with an emphasis on pedestrian friendly and green infrastructure.
The initiative was a byproduct of action plans for the Mount Vernon Road corridor, Northwest Neighborhood and College District, in which city staff, consultants and residents collaborated on a vision for how those areas could be better used. Staff realized a tool could help city staff, developers, and design consultants better understand guidelines and their options.
“It will provide a design aesthetic, but also allow us to highlight unique aspects of different parts of town, so people will want to stop and spend time in these areas,” said Bill Micheel, assistant director of community development. “Successful cities have places where people stop and spend time compared to where people keep moving. When people decide where to move, it is something people look at, a quality of life factor.”
Earlier this year, the city signed a contract with Confluence, of Cedar Rapids, for $199,800 to develop a right of way planning and specification manual. Confluence and city staff plan to draft a plan over the next few months. At the end of summer, they will hold public input sessions for people to weigh in on options for understates and designs for the College District, Mount Vernon Road SE and Ellis Boulevard NW.
A final plan will be presented to the City Council toward the end of the year.
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