CEDAR RAPIDS — Walking through the ninth floor of the under-construction United Fire Group’s newest office tower in downtown Cedar Rapids, you’d never guess you are passing between two buildings — one brand new and the other the 104-year-old American Building, the first skyscraper here.
In fact, they are separate. A 6-inch gap exists between the shells of the two buildings — being referred to together as the American Building — as a buffer in case an extreme event causes the buildings to shift.
“It’s meant to function as one building when it is done but look like two from the outside,” said Al Buck, the project architect for Solum Lang Architects of Cedar Rapids. “Once this gets carpeted over, you won’t see it in the floor. It will be seamless.”
The American Building — at the corner of First Avenue and Second Street SE — is the largest of several construction projects underway as part of what United Fire is calling the UFG on First project, marking a substantial expansion of the downtown footprint of one of Cedar Rapids’ largest companies.
United Fire is also adding a 16,000-square-foot, four-story expansion to the Tacoma Building, 119 Second Ave. SE, and has purchased and taken down two additional buildings on Second Street SE for another possible expansion. Until future plans flesh out, United Fire is using the space for a parking lot with 24 spaces to replace parking lost for the Tacoma expansion.
The city of Cedar Rapids plans to install a “pocket park” with public art, seating and plantings along the sidewalk to mask the new surface parking lot, which runs counter to a city vision to minimize space devoted to parking downtown.
An underground parking lot with 46 spaces is being constructed under the American Building and two adjacent United Fire Buildings at 109 Second St. SE and 118 Second Ave. SE. When the projects are finished, the downtown campus, which began in the early 1960s, will have expanded to more than 400,000 square feet of space.
“I think this shows we are really committed to downtown Cedar Rapids,” said Casey Prince, a company marketing communication manager.
Paige Butterfield, director of facility management and offices at United Fire, added, “We could have left after the flood, but we really wanted to stay downtown and invest in downtown.”
The $28 million UFG on First project combines the conversion of the 10-story American Building, which was gutted to the studs, with the adjacent newly constructed 10-story building. The project blends historic preservation techniques with modern construction and adds 110,000 square feet of office space.
On Thursday, 70 to 80 workers were on site installing 13-foot-tall curtain wall windows on the fourth floor, drywall on the 10th, and ventilation piping on the ninth. Outside, restoration work is sprucing up the terra-cotta street-facing facade and the cream-colored brick facade on the back side of the original American Building portion. The new addition blends in but has a more sleek look with floor-length windows.
A private skywalk, planned to connect the American Building to other United Fire properties, is set to befinished in February. The City Council, which awarded $2.6 million in public incentives, approved a change to its agreement to extend the completion deadline three months from the end of December to the end of March. The Iowa Economic Development Authority also awarded more than $1.9 million in tax credits and refunds.
“Through next February, we will be working at a fast pace,” said Brandon Hove, the construction manager for the general contractor, McComas-Lacina Construction of Iowa City.
UFG on First will include 260 work stations, 26 private offices and 37 conference rooms, Butterfield said.
“We are going to be full when we move in,” she said.
Initially, company officials anticipated having some open space in the new building, but the company’s recent growth has prompted them to shift gears, Butterfield said. Employment in Cedar Rapids has grown 19 percent from 647 in July 2016 to 768 in July 2018, according to the company.
Departments will relocate from other buildings on the campus to UFG on First, and over time those old spaces will be updated, Butterfield said. They will serve as flex space.
The publicly traded, $1 billion company, founded in Cedar Rapids in 1946, has 1,188 employees nationwide, and with just 1 percent of market share, company leaders see “endless possibilities” to continue growing,” Prince said. The forecast for growth and acquiring space to avoid being landlocked in the tight downtown area are among the reasons for all of the recent activity, he said.
The Tacoma Building expansion is rising from a previous parking lot. The back wall is the first piece off the ground, and the plan is to complete the project in May 2019, Prince said.
The new parking lot is paved and should be available to employees by Sept. 1, Prince said. Space is left for the pocket park, which is expected to be completed either later this year or the first half of 2019.
“We are happy to partner with the city so we don’t disrupt the pedestrian experience,” Prince said.
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