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As progress on the First and First West development in downtown Cedar Rapids grows more dramatically evident, several significant changes have already been made, including plans for the project’s hotel, which will be built on a new location and will be substantially larger than originally planned.
The project currently encompasses three square blocks along First Avenue west from First to Third streets – land that was cleared following the 2008 flood and originally envisioned as the site of a Cedar Rapids casino.
Several large projects are already under construction at the site, including a Pickle Palace entertainment complex, a Big Grove Brewery and a mixed-use building. Even more development is on the horizon, but several elements of the project have been substantially altered since plans were first approved by the Cedar Rapids City Council in September 2021.
Larger, relocated hotel
Joe Ahmann of Ahmann Companies, the lead developer for First and First West, said one of the project’s key components, a new hotel, has been relocated. It’s now planned for the intersection of First Avenue and Third Street West, near the Big Grove brewery.
Mr. Ahmann said the hotel will now be directly connected to the parking ramp set to be built by the city on the development site.
The hotel will now also be larger than originally planned, Mr. Ahmann said. Originally envisioned as a 100-room “boutique” hotel, plans now call for a 130-room, five-story, full-service hotel.
Mr. Ahmann said he can’t yet announce the hotel’s flag, but noted a development agreement is in place for the hotel to be developed by Coralville-based Kinseth Hospitality. Kinseth officials haven’t yet responded to requests for more information on the hotel.
“I really hope we can pull it all together, because if we can, it’s just going to be amazing,” Mr. Ahmann said.
Two mixed-use buildings now taller, conjoined
Another change from original plans has merged two mixed-use buildings along First Avenue together into a single building.
Mr. Ahmann said the building is now five stories in total, one story higher than the initial plan for the two separate buildings.
The two buildings were conjoined due to issues with existing underground utility lines that would have been “cost-prohibitive” to relocate, Mr. Ahmann said.
The single building will encompass about 100,000 square feet, Mr. Ahmann said, and will include a first-floor walkway through the middle to access the development’s park and plaza area. That walkway will be accessible via a new, signalized crosswalk that’s been built across First Avenue, connecting to a surface parking lot on the north side of First Avenue, which will serve as the overall development’s parking facility until the permanent parking ramp is built.
The walk-through is similar to the design of the Depot development in the NewBo neighborhood, Mr. Ahmann said, “where you walk through a walkway from the parking lot, but then there's a building above you.”
The building’s first and second floors will be configured for commercial or retail use, Mr. Ahmann said, with the upper three floors consisting of housing, including a mixture of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments with a total of 63 units.
Mr. Ahmann said he has a letter of intent for one 4,000-square-foot commercial space on the first floor, and two other prospects that are in the “early stages” of agreement, he said. Two other letters of intent would occupy about 12,000 square feet of available second-floor commercial space.
Pickle Palace, Big Grove brewery moving along
The most progress thus far is with the Pickle Palace building at the northeast corner of First Avenue and First Street West, featuring a curved-arch facade.
The 43,530-square-foot, four-story Pickle Palace will house pickleball courts, a bar and grill, event space, rooftop courts and games (including duckpin bowling), a roof deck measuring about 9,000 square feet, and a third-floor bar.
A relocation of rooftop mechanicals has made a larger portion of the roof deck accessible for public gatherings, and Mr. Ahmann said the views from the deck promise to be “spectacular.”
Structural steel is also in place for the 8,000-square-foot Big Grove Brewery location, the fourth Big Grove, joining locations in Solon, Iowa City and Des Moines. Developers say the new facility will include a brewery, a modern patio, and a “vibrant, classic taproom.”
Big Grove co-founder and chief executive officer Matt Swift previously told The Gazette a lager system will be built at this location, as Big Grove looks to “dial in on the lager and focus on traditional beers” with a longer fermentation process.
“We’re trying to really attach ourselves to the heritage of the community of Cedar Rapids” and tie into the city’s Czech roots, Swift told The Gazette.
Plaza canopy to utilize historic trusses
A defining feature of the public plaza in the center of the First and First development – a large canopy with a retractable projection screen for various multimedia presentations – is now expected to incorporate historic wooden trusses.
Mr. Ahmann said he found the old trusses, with metal plates indicating they were manufactured by a Cedar Rapids company sometime in the 1910s. He said he believes the trusses may have been part of an old railroad bridge.
He said he plans to use the trusses in the structure of the stage canopy in the plaza.
“I just liked that they had Cedar Rapids on them, as well as the age of them,” he said, “and I thought, ‘if we can incorporate these somehow that’d be really cool.’”
Parking ramp still planned
A parking ramp will be constructed by the city at the First and First West site once developers have completed at least $30 million in improvements. The ramp will be operated by ParkCR at market rates.
City officials said plans call for the ramp to be funded in part with $6 million from the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Reinvestment District program.
The multi-level ramp, with an anticipated capacity of at least 600 spaces, will serve more than just the First and First development, Mr. Ahmann said, since there’s currently no comparable parking structure on the west side of the Cedar River.
The ramp could be utilized, for example, during events at the nearby McGrath Amphitheatre.
“There’s a definite need (for parking) in that area,” Mr. Ahmann noted.
City officials are soliciting proposals to determine the appropriate size and design of the ramp, Mr. Ahmann said, to ensure it meets the needs of the larger community as well as First and First.
North portion of project still under consideration
Mr. Ahmann said he’s still considering options for developing a parcel on the north side of First Avenue, land which is currently being used for staging construction equipment and supplies.
Those plans have been modified somewhat due to the design of First Street West and the flood protection system in the area, but they could include another mixed-use building, a parking facility, and even a second hotel if demand warrants.
“That road and property line has been in flux for a while,” he said. “Water mains are being moved for the flood wall, so everything we had (planned) before doesn't work, because there's a big chunk of ground that came off with that. That northeast corner of that north block has been taken for the street and floodwall.”
Detailed plans for the north portion likely won’t be developed for at least another two years, Mr. Ahmann said.
Completion schedules falling into place
Mr. Ahmann said he’s anticipating the Pickle Palace building will be completed as soon as late September, with the Big Grove brewery tentatively set to open in November.
Merging the two mixed-use buildings has actually accelerated the completion schedule for that portion of the project by about a year. Mr. Ahmann said he’s now hoping the building can be ready for occupancy by the summer of 2024.
Mr. Ahmann also noted he hopes construction of the full-service hotel and parking ramp could begin sometime in the spring of 2024, with completion planned for about a year thereafter.
The overall value of the project, including the larger hotel and the city-owned parking ramp, could easily exceed $100 million, Mr. Ahmann said, due to higher construction costs and other unanticipated factors.
And after overcoming several obstacles, from the pandemic to supply chain issues and interest rate increases, Mr. Ahmann said he’s relieved to see the project he’s described as a “legacy development” making concrete progress.
“It's been a long road to get here, but it's going to be worth it,” he said. “We're only here for a period of time, but what we build and what we leave behind is hopefully here much longer. This is about as visible a project as we’ve ever done, and we hope the community is proud of it. Talk is cheap, and we've been talking a long time, but we do what we say we're going to do. With all the delays, I think people started to wonder if it was happening. Now I can start to see the vision in my head where this is going. I think it's going to be 10 times better than I anticipated. I'm excited.”