Staff Columnist

Cedar Rapids Council is in harmony, sort of, on the Old Banjo Block

So maybe you’ve heard about the large development project planned for the “Banjo Block” at Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street SE downtown. The Cedar Rapids Downtown Library and Greene Square Park are its next door neighbors.

An Indianapolis developer is proposing a $32 million project including 184 housing units, ground-floor retail and a parking garage. There will be a bike shop, fitness facilities, a rooftop deck and an interior courtyard featuring a pool.

The City Council voted last week to move forward on the project, with details still to work out. The developer is seeking a 100-percent, 20-year property tax break for its new building. That’s double the length of time the city normally provides tax incentives for urban housing. City staff say the project’s “community benefit” is reason enough to sidestep precedent.

Council member Scott Olson, a commercial realtor, is concerned the 20-year break will set a new, pricey precedent. This is a warning bell Olson has sounded before.

It’s become a familiar cycle. New development is good news, but what will developers ask for next? And will renderings become reality? Consider Westdale.

In fact, it’s become so familiar, I hesitated to write about it again. But as I sat at the very long council meeting, I realized the saga of something called the Banjo Block didn’t need a column. It needed a song.

So here’s my banjo-friendly City Council-inspired “The Old Banjo Block.”

Now gather ‘round people, let me sing you a song

About a tax break that’s 20-years long.

Got City Council backin,’ so it might be a lock.

Gonna be some fancy housing on the old Banjo Block.

It’ll have lots of glass, and a big swimmin’ pool.

Drawings of the joint could make a fella drool.

Retail on the bottom, amenities up top.

You’ll never quite believe it’s the old Banjo Block.

Thirty-two million is the total price tag.

Throw in a tax break, it’s surely in the bag.

But 20 years doubles what’s seen here as the norm.

Could set a pricey precedent, Scott Olson did warn.

He said such a deal could be “Pandora’s box.”

Future investors will point to Banjo Block.

They’ll want 20 years. Put ‘em on the list.

Existing building owners will be plenty … ticked.

But the other council members didn’t feel that way.

It’s really “quite spectacular” Ann Poe did say.

Scott Overland proclaimed that the city’s “on a roll.”

Keep the kids from leaving is the ultimate goal.

And when the dust settled, they all voted yes.

With all the praise and accolades it wasn’t tough to guess.

A game-changing project, how could they balk?

But the ante just got upped on the old Banjo Block.

That will teach you to have long meetings. (Banjo lick).

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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