Cedar Rapids leaders: Greenway Parks Plan will expand amenities, provide economic boost

Formal plan for multi-year project formally adopted by city council

Cedar Rapids Greenway Parks Plan rendering
A rendering of the Cedar Rapids Greenway Parks Plan. CREDIT CITY OF CEDAR RAPIDS

Cedar Rapids leaders say the city’s Greenway Parks Plan will not only provide a vital boost to flood recovery efforts for riverfront areas on the west side of the Cedar River, it will help establish a “reconciliation with the river” and bring millions of dollars of economic impact to the city.

The plan, expected to unfold in stages over a period of 15 years or more, was formally adopted by the city council at its meeting May 28.

The plan primarily encompasses three areas on the west side of the river, from Time Check Park to the north, through Riverside Park in the Kingston Village area, and south to the Czech Village Park, encompassing about 113 acres. It’s an update of the original Greenway Parks Plan, which was developed in the wake of the 2008 flood, and intertwined with the ongoing construction of the west-side flood control system.

“Through that planning process, we heard pretty loud and clear that people did not want to be disconnected from the river,” city planner Haley Sevening told the council. “They wanted to have recreation and open space and really embrace the river as an asset.”

The latest update was designed to align with current planning efforts, position the city to be competitive for federal funding and engage with the community to build momentum for the project, Ms. Sevening said.

A steering committee helped the city develop the revised plan, Ms. Sevening said. Committee members included representatives of several stakeholder groups, including the Parks, Waterways, and Recreation Commission; the Cedar Rapids Parks Foundation; the Northwest Neighborhood Association; the Czech Village/New Bohemia SSMID; the Downtown District; and representatives from skateboarding and paddling user groups.

Through a series of community engagement events that drew hundreds of area residents, several key themes were derived. Residents indicated strong support for natural features and plantings, open spaces, connections to river and water activities, trails and dog parks, event venues, and an overall atmosphere of relaxation and solitude. A survey in the wake of the public input sessions showed 82% of respondents felt the Greenway Parks Plan concepts aligned with “many or all of the community’s needs.”

Five principles emerged In designing the plan with consultant Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Ms. Sevening said: connecting people to the river, balancing traditional and wild settings, integrating circulation with the flood control system and levee, building connectivity and uplifting ecology.

Starting in Time Check Park, the plan includes a promenade with stone seat steps, a skate park and skills course, a water play feature, a levee overlook, a picnic grove, a rookery and high marsh area, a sledding hill, an adventure play area, multi-use sport courts, restroom facilities, and a paddle launch area leading into a canoe safari course.

The Riverfront Park concept includes open lawn areas, a dog run, a nature play area and a whitewater rafting course with support services.

And the Czech Village Park area ties in with the city’s previously-announced LightLine Loop project and includes a destination play area and “paha gardens,” described by recreation superintendent Tony Ireland as a “tribute to landscape topography in northeast Iowa,” with small rolling hills that provide “pockets of seclusion.”

“While it’s a very active space, you can certainly get away for some privacy and some respite, when you want to curl up with a book or have a little picnic with your family within that space to find some quiet time,” Mr. Ireland said.

Mr. Ireland also noted that some of the water features, including the canoe safari and whitewater rafting courses, might remain gated from the main river until “safety improvements” associated with the renovation of the 5-In-1 dam.

Mr. Ireland said the consultant, using case studies with comparable park developments in cities like Knoxville, Tennessee, Richmond, Virginia, and Fort Wayne Indiana, estimated the project could boost the area’s annual visitor count by 1.5 million per year, based on an average of 4,100 new daily visitors to the area, provide a $600 million boost in overall economic impact; and create up to 1,300 new jobs.

Timing of implementation of the overall project would be contingent on finding sources of funding, including local public funds, private contributions and federal grants, but Mr. Ireland noted that the first five years of the plan could incorporate identification of funding sources, low-maintenance plantings, engineered designs for the whitewater course and the overall Greenway parks system, and removal of current infrastructure. The next five years could include park grading in conjunction with the flood control system, road realignment, dam bypass and safety improvements, a park shelter and play areas. And plans for 10-plus years in the future could include the destination skate park and skills course, adventure play areas, the canoe safari and the whitewater rafting course.

City council member Tyler Olson said he felt the plan conforms closely to the council’s priority of enhancing the riverfront greenway.

“When we look at investments over the long term that the city needs to make, after flood control, this is right up there as a priority,” Mr. Olson said.

Mr. Olson also said the city may need to move soon to “organize a public-private effort to put the funds in place so that it’s not a 20-year project, maybe it’s a 15-year project to get it all done.”

City council member Ashley Vanorny said the plan would provide long-lasting memories for visitors and help the city establish a sense of place.

“The other thing besides placemaking that it does, is it gives us the opportunity to have a reconciliation with the river,” Ms. Vanorny said. “It’s that opportunity to reclaim the river’s edge that has caused so much trauma for decades into a really special moment that hopefully we can use as close to four seasons as possible, but that allows us to have a positive relationship with water and the nature there.”

Council member Scott Overland said it’s “rare” that a 175-year-old city like Cedar Rapids has the opportunity to redevelop its riverside area to this extent.

“Most cities would have an awful hard time doing it,” Mr. Overland said. “Unfortunately, we went through terrible times, especially for those who lost their homes in those neighborhoods and couldn’t rebuild because of the flood. I think this is the highest and best use, other than homes that were lost from the flood, to go onto this site.”

Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell stressed that the project needs to embrace Cedar Rapids’ natural relationship with the river, one of the city’s most defining characteristics.

“Make no mistake, we are done turning our backs on the river,” she said. “We are facing it full on. And I hope and pray that those who did lose homes here – it’s not lost on us that we need to be respectful and mindful of how this river wants to be. Mother Nature wins every time, so we are going to follow her lead.”

The plan will be incorporated into EnvisionCR, the city’s overall comprehensive plan.