2012 in review: Emerging neighborhoods flourish as flood recovery continues

By Sarah Binder

LINN COUNTY–2012 was a year for the record books.

It was the year that influential entities were able to return to a permanent home. For the first time ever, the Cedar Rapids city government moved into a building called City Hall, after a $10 million renovation on a historic courthouse. The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance started the year freshly formed from the Chamber of Commerce, Priority One and the Cedar Rapids Downtown District, and by fall were celebrating a ribbon cutting in its new home.

It was the year Cedar Rapids set a new record for total valuation of building permits. In fiscal year 2012, there were more than $346 million in permits reported; it was the first time the total valuation exceeded $300 million in one year.

It was a year when Cedar Rapids was able to show off recovery progress to the rest of the state when the city hosted the 40th anniversary celebration of RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). Cedar Rapids played host to thousands of Iowans in the first RAGBRAI stopover in the city since 1990.

Of course, more changes are in the works for 2013.

The city’s new development services department is working to streamline development efforts. Led by Joe O’Hern, the city’s former flood recovery and reinvestment director, the department should be fully staffed with another economic development professional by early 2013.

Meanwhile, the economic alliance and Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD) are looking for more ways to work together. About 10 board executives of the two organizations and 40 investors met Nov. 19 to discuss ideas for collaboration. Earlier reports indicated the organizations could consider merging.

Flood recovery marches on…

Many prominent flood recovery projects made major progress in 2012.

The Paramount Theatre celebrated its grand reopening with a ribbon cutting on Oct. 26. The $34.7 million renovation restored the theater to all of its gilded 1928 glory, while adding some modern touches, like more legroom in the seats. The stage and orchestra pit were both enlarged, meaning larger shows can come to the historic stage, and a new partnership between Orchestra Iowa and VenuWorks was formed to attract those national names in entertainment to Cedar Rapids.

About 130 government workers were able to move into new offices when Cedar Rapids’ city hall building opened June 4. The 1928 facility received a $10 million renovation after the city of Cedar Rapids acquired it from the federal government, and retrofitted it to house council chambers and several other city departments. Meanwhile, the Federal Courthouse hosted an open house on Dec. 14 to show off the new glassy structure, designed to be both secure and energy efficient.

In September, the city celebrated a milestone in housing redevelopment. More than 1,000 homes were destroyed in the floods of 2008, but at a housing tour on Sept. 15, Mayor Ron Corbett announced that more than 1,300 have been rebuilt, thanks to $200 million in public and private investment. The tipping point was the Villages at 12 and 6, built by Sky’s Edge Development in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood, which was one of the hardest hit areas in the floods. The $200 million spent on housing represents $93 million in public investment and $107 million in private investment.

Two high-profile downtown projects scheduled to open in 2013 made visible progress throughout the year. The new downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library, a $49.5 million investment, is designed to be highly experiential. Thanks to green technology (the building is pursuing a LEED Platinum rating), although the new facility will be 10,000 square feet larger than the old library, it will be incredibly efficient.

The Cedar Rapids Convention Complex, including nearly 50,000 square feet of convention space, an 8,600-seat arena, and 267-room DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, is one of the largest construction projects underway in the Corridor with a price tag of $145.2 million.

Less visible city projects moved ahead, including: the $36 million City Services Center, scheduled to open fall 2014; the $20 million Central Fire Station and $2.8 million West Side Fire Station, both scheduled to open summer 2013; the $7.8 million downtown amphitheatre and levee, a 3,000-plus seat venue on the west banks of the river, scheduled to open fall 2013; the $7.7 million Ground Transportation Center, $4.55 million animal care and control facility, and $4.5 million transit bus garage, all scheduled to open spring/ summer 2013.

A major national attraction that was badly damaged in the 2008 floods, the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, celebrated its grand reopening in an expanded building on July 14. The building features a 55-seat auditorium, three galleries including a 7,200-squarefoot permanent exhibition hall, a classroom, a 5,500-square-foot library, a reception hall that can seat up to 400, a river view terrace, a catering kitchen and an expanded store. The museum opened with a blockbuster exhibit, Alphonse Mucha: Inspirations of Art Nouveau, featuring around 230 works from the Mucha Foundation in Prague and London.

Between the museum, situated in the historic Czech Village and downtown, lies the developing New Bohemia neighborhood. Several new businesses came to the neighborhood in 2012, most notably the NewBo City Market. Featuring more than 20 semipermanent merchants, a rotating cast of seasonal vendors, the Kirkwood Culinary Kitchen and outdoor space for events, the market is unique to the state of Iowa.

In the coming year, additional damaged properties in the neighborhood may get a new lease on life thanks to a change in state regulations. Initially, state guidelines prevented redevelopment in Cedar Rapids of flooddamaged properties within the 100-year flood plain that were purchased with federal funds. The city of Cedar Rapids worked with the Iowa Economic Development Authority to stress the importance of filling the gaps in historic neighborhoods, prompting an exception to the rule. A handful of properties in the New Bohemia neighborhood, a designated historic district, and the Third Avenue SW area (loosely known as Kingston or West Village), a potential historic district, could now be renovated due to this change.The city is currently accepting proposals for what to do with the historic properties.

…but questions remain

For the second time, Linn County voters said “no” to a local option sales tax (LOST) that would have helped fund a flood protection system. The proposed LOST was revised after being voted down in May 2011.

The revised plan was to extend the tax for 10 more years (instead of 20) and have 100 percent of the revenue go toward flood protection (instead of 40 percent). All of the revenues from the 1-cent tax would have been used to build and maintain a flood protection system on both the east and west sides of the Cedar River. The protection project will cost an estimated $345 million.

So, after spending millions of dollars rebuilding flood damaged properties, the question of how to protect them remains.

At the Nov. 27 city council meeting, the city agreed to pay $1.1 million premium on $25 million in protection in flood insurance, and council members lamented that much of the burden would fall to property owners.

The city is required by the federal government to insure public buildings up to the amount that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spent on restoring them, in case a flood would occur again. The city will face the issue of high flood insurance costs on an annual basis until a flood protection system is installed.

MedQuarter makes moves

Cedar Rapids MedQuarter, an emerging commercial district, saw large building projects completed in 2012 and is looking for more direction in 2013.

Mercy’s Hall-Perrine Cancer Center, a $24.6 million project, celebrated its grand opening in July. The center houses many types of medical professionals in an effort to provide coordinated care, as well as a salon, gift shop, healthy café and community gathering spaces.

Still under construction is the 220,000-square-foot Physician’s Clinic of Iowa Medical Pavilion. The pavilion is built on a “medical mall” concept; the different PCI departments and independent tenants will each have their own “storefront” so patients and visitors from all over Eastern Iowa can accomplish many tasks in one trip. The clinic expects to start serving patients in March.

In November, the Medical Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District (Medical SSMID) put out a request for proposal (RFP) for a master development plan, including a 20-year long-term plan and a “strategic and prioritized” five-year plan. A priority for the RFP is deciding how to use the square blocks within the district’s boundaries, which include Mercy Medical Center, St. Luke’s Hospital, and the under-construction Physician’s Clinic of Iowa medical pavilion.

Plans for a medical district were discussed in the Vision Cedar Rapids Downtown Framework plan by JLG architects in 2007 and the city of Cedar Rapids Framework Plan for Reinvestment and Revitalization by Sasaki Associates in 2009, leading to the creation of the SSMID and appointment of the commission by the mayor. However, the RFP will be the first plan to provide a roadmap specifically for the future of the MedQuarter. Consultant decisions are expected to be completed early in 2013, with the master development plan completed by August 2013.