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Archive for April, 2008|Monthly archive page

Two worlds out on Greenfield Street NE; developer, neighbors can find common ground

In City Hall on April 30, 2008 at 12:51 pm

Brian and Christine Wagner have been beside themselves for months, struggling with what they say are brand-new water problems at their home at 818 Greenfield St. NE. They blame the problems on a new office development above and the west of their house.

On Tuesday, though, and just a couple blocks to the east on Greenfield Street NE, plans for another development came to light at a City Planning Commission meeting that left the commission to marvel a bit.

The commission quickly and unanimously approved a change in the city’s future land-use map after hearing that a developer and homeowners agreed to a new commercial development on the northeast corner of Blairs Ferry Road NE and C Avenue NE and an office development next door, both developments of which back up to homes on one side of Greenfield Street NE.

In this instance, the developer, Midwest Property Group Ltd., had met with homeowners on several occasions and had secured from each of them an agreement to allow the commercial and office developments to proceed. Both projects are on land now owned by IBEW Local 1362 Building Corp.

The key to the agreement is the willingness of the developer to keep a stand of timber in place between the developments and the houses, and additionally, to deed over the buffer of timber to the homeowners at no cost to them.

“Important to note” is the way city staff put the meetings between neighbors and developer and the agreement the parties reach about the proposed development.

The agreement particularly stood out on Tuesday at the commission meeting because a second development proposal on the commission agenda — a proposal to build the three-story, 60-unit Tudor Rose condominium building at Johnson Avenue and Wiley Boulevard NW — did not come with any meeting of the minds between neighboring homeowners and the developer.

As for the Wagners at 818 Greenfield St. NE, please see an earlier post:

Condo project on Baumhoefener Nursery grounds takes step ahead; “smart-growth” feature might make project tougher for opponents to stop

In City Hall on April 30, 2008 at 2:12 am

John Baumhoefener III has had a plan to build a three-story, 60-unit condominium project called Tudor Rose for a couple years now on six acres of Baumhoefener Nursery land at Johnson Avenue and Wiley Boulevard NW.

His plan isn’t liked by neighbors next door in single-family homes and hasn’t done well jumping through the City Hall regulatory process. In fact, it was put on hold for a year, waiting the required period before getting a second chance to begin the process anew.

On Tuesday, the City Planning Commission liked the project this time around and gave it an important backing on a 5-2 vote.

There are still some go-rounds, both in front of the commission and the City Council.

But Tuesday’s vote was important.

The commission majority agreed with Baumhoefener III’s request to change the city’s future land-use map from low-density residential to medium-density residential for the nursery site. The change will allow the condominium project, which would not have been permitted in the existing designation.

The City Council must agree, and then future debates and votes will deal with zoning and the site plan for the site.

Commission member Nancy Evans on Tuesday said the issue of land-use on the Baumhoefener property wasn’t even a close call.

The site, Evans noted, sits at the intersection of two busy arterial streets on which it was hard to imagine any developer would ever build single-family homes. The site didn’t belong in a land-use category, low-density residential, in which no one could build housing, she said.

Commissioners Allan Thoms and Scott Fiauf made the same point.

The commission unanimously turned down a similar request for the project in 2006, and one opposing neighbor, Todd Kunstorf, 4204 Roxbury Dr. NW, asked the commission on Tuesday why it would change its mind now.

Commission member Thoms noted that the developer had changed a couple aspects of the proposal, adding a wider buffering strip between the project and neighbors and limiting access to the site off Wiley Boulevard NW near a school.

Commissioner member Evans also pointed to the city’s new use of a “smart-growth scorecard,” which is designed to assess the value of a project to the community.

One of the developer’s engineers, Allen Witt, of Hall & Hall Engineers, argued that the Tudor Rose project was a perfect example of “infill development” — it’s on a bus route, near a fire station, a walking trail and retail stores, and is not fueling urban sprawl — which helps a project score well on the scorecard.

Neighbors have opposed the Tudor Rose project since they first learned of it in June 2006, and at one point, presented a petition in opposition with more than 200 signatures. Neighbors spoke out against the project again Tuesday, in part, saying that they bought their homes trusting in the city’s future land-use map, which showed the future use of the Baumhoefener property as low-density residential.

One neighbor, Steve DeFord, 4313 Roxbury Dr. NW, called the move to change the land-use map “spot zoning,” and he cautioned residents elsewhere to watch out if they, too, have placed their “trust” in the land-use map.

Commissioner Evans said there are times and places where the city’s land-use map should change, and the intersection of two busy streets is one of those, she said.

If the Tudor Rose project is built, the Tudor-style home on the six acres is to be renovated and used by those buying the condominiums as a meeting place.


On vacation this week

In City Hall on April 28, 2008 at 1:57 pm

Turbulent week for one advocate of neighborhood, community gardens, arts and cultural district

In City Hall, New Bohemia on April 26, 2008 at 2:57 am

Michael Richards isn’t one to go home at night and sit in the easy chair, content from there to yell at the talking heads on the nightly cable TV shows.

President of the Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood Association and an active member of the New Bohemia cultural group, Richards, though, isn’t averse to making his views known about things that he and a network of friends and acquaintances care about.

Things like the long-sought Third Street SE arts and cultural district, and his own neighborhood and, most recently, a community garden in that neighborhood.

As the week ended, Richards, turning sometimes impatient, was still in back-and-forth negotiations with city officials over the neighborhood’s desire to create a garden. The idea is that it will become something of open-air classroom to teach youngsters and others about the sense and joy of gardening.

What Richards has learned along the way is that city officials don’t want to willy-nilly hand over permission to anyone and everyone who has a good idea and a tiller and wants to plow up a piece of city property.

“There’s a process so we can manage the park system,” explained Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director, late Friday afternoon. “I just can’t let people dig up park land anywhere they think it (a garden) should go.”

Initially, Richards made note that the city is buying up vacant lots in Oakhill with the intent of luring contractors to build houses on them. Richards wanted to use one of those for the community garden, a notion the city rejected. The city wants the lots available to market.

The city then offered a city parcel in Oakhill on Otis Road SE, but Richards said it had too much shade. He then decided to use Poet’s Park, where the neighborhood and the city already have an agreement for the neighborhood to plant flower beds. Putting a garden in, though, requires amending the agreement.

At the end of the work day Friday, the city’s Sina was still at it, again suggesting Richards look at the Otis Road SE park space. Sina said she and her staff had marked out a spot that has the exact kind of sun for a garden the size of the one Richards had intended for Poet’s Park.

Richards will look at it Monday, he told Sina.

The garden issue was still rattling around when Richards turned up at the Wednesday evening City Council meeting to protest a law-enforcement raid of his property at 1029 Third St. SE on Friday afternoon, April 18. The property is an old storefront, above which he and his wife, Lynette, live, in the heart of New Bohemia and the proposed Third Street SE arts and cultural district.

Richards suggested this point: At a time when the local Police Department and the Department of Correctional Services both are trumpeting their commitment to “community-oriented” law enforcement, why couldn’t the agencies have known that he has been a candle maker, has sold his formula for making candles out of soybean wax and continues to research new uses for soybean oil.

Richards’ e-mail address, after all, is

Richards’ son, Solomon, is on probation, had been accused of not following rules and was the subject of an arrest warrant on the day of the raid.

It was correctional officers who first came to Richards’ address to arrest the son and found a broken window and what to them was a suspicious-looking barrel. Was it a possible methamphetamine lab? In short order, federal drug agents were called to the scene and Cedar Rapids police arrived as backup, reports Bruce VanderSanden, a division manager at the Sixth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services.

VanderSanden noted that those under probation supervision give permission for their premises to be searched, and so officers were able to enter the Richards’ property to hunt for him. No one was home. In short order, the officers learned of Richards’ research into soybeans from another son, who lives next door, and the raid ended.

Richards now says that he had had an opportunity to talk to law enforcement officers, and now had a better understanding of how things came to what they did. He was going to leave it at that.

Even so, earlier in the week, he pointed out that he is available and pretty visible in the neighborhood. He said he and his wife have many people in and out of their storefront and home. Those people have included people involved in the New Bohemia cultural group, Cedar Rapids Women for Peace, poetry groups, a local food planning group and the neighborhood association. The mayor and council members have spent time in the very space where police officers raided, Richards said.

The door was open, he noted, when the authorities entered.

In truth, Richards has had more successful, less turbulent  weeks.

Earlier this month, he and others lobbied the City Council to move forward with a promised plan to renovate Third Street SE from Eighth to 14th Avenues SE and transform it into the heart of the arts and cultural district.

The council, which had put plans on hold 17 months ago, voted to move ahead on the renovation.

A fight looms over the street’s design, though the New Bohemia group has softened its position in recent weeks.

Another earlier struggle, one which extended over some years, centered on getting grain-hauling, semi-trailer trucks off Third Street SE. The trucks lumbered in large numbers down the street, only to park at the Sinclair plant site to wait until the Penford Products Inc. plant across the river was ready to unload them. At the urging of Richards and others, the city and company finally reached an agreement that keeps the trucks on the river’s west side near the Penford plant.


No “in-group” guy, District 3 McGrane’s hunch still key in Intermodal coming to warehouse site across from Osada

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Jerry McGrane on April 25, 2008 at 2:01 am

City staff last November surveyed and analyzed the downtown and near downtown and came up with 26 or so possible sites for the proposed multimillion-dollar Intermodal Transit Facility.

The new building, which had been planned to be built twice before on two different sites, now was an orphan looking for yet a new, third site.

By the end of that City Council meeting last November, District 3 council member Jerry McGrane had succeeded in adding yet another site to the long list of sites under consideration.

It was that additional site, not any of the sites on the original, lengthy list of 26 that the City Council this week selected as the one to build the new Intermodal Transit Facility.

“It was the only logical place to put it,” McGrane said Thursday after the council vote.

The chosen site is in the 900 block of Third Street SE across the street from the empty Osada apartment building, which was once a multistory warehouse and which a local developer is now readying to convert into the Bottleworks condominiums.

Now on the spot for the new Intermodal is Loftus Distributing Co. and some old warehouse buildings.

The owner of the property, which has an assessed value at $472,205, has been called a willing seller. The cost to demolish the existing buildings is estimated at $400,000.

McGrane credited Sam Shea, the city’s long-range planning coordinator, with taking an interest in the Loftus site and council member Brian Fagan for liking the fact that the site has an active rail line running by it.

The idea for an Intermodal is that it is supposed to be a hub for all kinds of transit. The facility will handle city buses, Neighborhood Transit Service vans, LIFTs buses and intercity buses, and as McGrane says, one day passenger trains from Iowa City and even Waterloo may stop there.

As for ideas, the idea that a bus depot needs to be in the heart of a downtown is no longer thought a good one. Depots are places for people to transfer to other buses, they are not destinations.

McGrane likes that the Loftus site is near the downtown, just up the street from the proposed Third Street SE arts and cultural district and also near the former Sinclair meatpacking site, which the city one day intends to see redeveloped.

McGrane, a retiree and recent past president of the Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood Association, makes it known that he is not a part of what he says is the “in-group” on the City Council.

No matter, on this one, the idea he floated for the Intermodal site is the one that now has gained traction over two dozen others.

“I don’t go to pushing people to do things,” McGrane said. “Sometimes you plant the seed and see how far it grows. And it grew pretty good.”

Building the Intermodal will take some time. There are “federal hoops” to jump through, the city’s Shea says.

The plan is to convert the existing Ground Transportation Center bus depot into another use. The City Council and downtown leaders want First Street SE to be a pedestrian-friendly spot, and the current bus depot makes a stretch of the street another but that.

A homeowner at wit’s end: With “in-fill” development all the rage at City Hall, who is going to care for those already there?

In City Hall on April 24, 2008 at 3:42 am

Christine Wagner was a fresh face with a sad, angry story at this week’s City Council meeting.

Her and her husband Brian say their house at 818 Greenfield St. NE is being ruined by water this spring, and they say it is because of a new medical office under construction just to the west of their property.

Everything at the Wagner house, built in 1955 in an established neighborhood, was fine until developer Bjornsen Investment Corp. began readying for and construction then began on the medical office several months ago on Rockwell Drive NE north of Blairs Ferry Road NE,  the Wagners say.

But then, out of the blue, the Wagners say they have had water spill into their home and drench their yard three times this year, causing significant distress and damage.

The city’s Public Works Department is well aware of the Wagners’ problem, but the problem hasn’t stopped.

“Nobody has done anything to help us,” Christine Wagner, turning emotional, pleaded with the City Council Wednesday evening during the public comment period of the council meeting.

 “I’m extremely disappointed,” she said more than once in front of the council. She talked and held up photographs of the water problems in and around her house.

“It’s a sponge,” she said of her yard. “Your feet sink.

“… I need to have something done. I’m losing my house.”

In recent days, Brian Wagner, an information technology specialist at AEGON USA, has told his story to The Gazette while standing in his well-maintained, but now swampy yard.

Brian Wagner estimated damage to his home at about $20,000, but he said he doesn’t have the many thousands of dollars to pay an attorney to try to fight the developer or City Hall.

The Wagners point out that the city is requiring the new medical office development to make storm sewer improvements, and Christine Wagner told the council this week that she couldn’t understand why those improvements didn’t come before the construction.

“Who is going to make them do that?” she asked the council. “I’m going to make them do that?”

The City Planning Commission and the City Council approved the new medical office development late last year.

Brian Wagner appeared at the planning commission meeting in November and alerted it to water problems already coming from the medical office site as the developer was readying for construction. The commission approved the developer’s plans, encouragiing additional water management measures. Commissoner Scott Overland said it was important that the proposed site did not create more drainage problems in the future, according to the commission minutes.

Christine Wagner said she wasn’t opposed to development, but she pleaded with the council to not turn a blind eye when a development causes harm to others.

“You got to let these developers come in. But you better take care of the people who were there first,” she said.

Terry Bjornsen, of Bjornsen Investment Corp. in Cedar Rapids, on Thursday said drainage problems existed in the area before the medical office development. He now has sold the site, he said.

Ken DeKeyser, storm water utility engineer in the city’s Public Works Department, on Wednesday noted that the city is readying to improve storm sewers in the affected area this summer, with the developer and city joining in the cost of the work.

In the larger issue, DeKeyser noted that City Hall is now encouraging and promoting in-fill development like this new medical office near the Wagners’ home. And in that regard, he said the city has begun to employ a “smart-growth” scorecard, which credits developments that rank as “in-fill.” The idea is that it saves the city money if someone builds where the city already has services rather than letting the city sprawl by having someone build on the city’s edge where services aren’t in place.

However, DeKeyser noted that in-fill development brings its own challenges when a new development comes to an old neighborhood that itself may long have had substandard roads and sewers.

He noted that the Greenfield Street NE neighborhood meets that bill.

One of the questions then becomes, should the new development pay to fix what was substandard before the new development arrived? DeKeyser said.

With the prospect for more and more in-fill development in Cedar Rapids, the city “probably” needs to examine conditions and get storm sewer extensions built a lot earlier, DeKeyser said.


Boondoggle Cedar Rapids buses sold for salvage may have new life as buses yet

In City Hall on April 23, 2008 at 5:52 pm

Charles Bacon, the owner of C.J. Bacon & Sons Salvage in Hopkinton, isn’t as revved up as a month ago about ripping apart nine, little-used, experimental electric buses he purchased in an online auction from the city of Cedar Rapids.

Bacon bought all nine buses – four electric and five electric hybrids – that had sat in a city of Cedar Rapids storage lot, some a couple years, some several years, waiting for the federal government to allow the city to get rid of them.

The buses are a testament to a $10-million experiment, which was funded in large part by the federal government and which turned into nothing less than a boondoggle.

The buses never worked very well. None of the nine every logged many miles.

On Wednesday, Bacon said the price of gasoline these days has had him thinking that he can make more money selling some or all of the nine buses for use as buses rather than breaking them apart for salvage. A month ago, he figured he could make a couple thousand dollars of profit on each bus via the salvage route.

“I’ve got some interest in them,” Bacon explained.

He pointed to one fellow with operations in California and southern Missouri who has been “deviling me” to purchase the four all-electric buses among the nine.

Sufficiently strong has the interest been that Bacon now doubts he will bust up any of the buses just for salvage value.

Suddenly, he said he finds himself in a “speculative situation,” where he is willing to sit back and wait to see what the buses may yet bring.

“I don’t get too excited,” Bacon said. “The buses are mine. I’ve paid for them.”

He said he has a salvage yard full of things to tear apart without needing to hurry and salvage the buses.


A little red tape, not tilling, is Oakhill’s first task to make new community garden in a city park take root

In City Hall, New Bohemia on April 23, 2008 at 3:19 am

The Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood Association already has had its master gardener lay out the 20-by-30-foot garden plot on a piece of city park that the neighborhood and the New Bohemia group named Poet’s Park back in 2005.

Tilling is set for the next day or two, reports Michael Richards, the articulate advocate for the neighborhood and the part of it called New Bohemia.

Probably. City Hall still has a question or so.

No doubt, Richards and the neighborhood association are enthused about the idea of creating a brand new community garden. They want to use it as a demonstration plot for those in the neighborhood and elsewhere, including youngsters. They see it as a place to learn and to come to love gardening.

Two weeks ago, Richards attended the City Council meeting to talk about his garden plans, asking the city to let the neighborhood use one of the many vacant lots in a part of Oakhill for the demonstration garden

The part of the neighborhood he was talking about is the site for an emerging City Hall initiative called HAND – Housing and Neighborhood Development – in which the city is in the process of buying up a significant number of vacant lots. The plan is to provide incentives for builders to build on the lots.

Richard’s idea is that some if not many of the lots will remain vacant for a number of years, so why not put one of them to use in the meantime as a community garden.

Understand, the season has changed, the sun is up and the rain is coming down, and Richards wants to get to gardening.

City Hall doesn’t move quite so fast, nor should it, Sandi Fowler, the city’s neighborhood liaison, explained on Tuesday.

The city can’t just start tilling on public property. If the city gives the OK for Richards, what’s to stop 20 others from coming in and asking for permission to get other city-owned property for gardening? she explained.

In fact, the city follows policies that have been crafted by its policymakers, the City Council, Fowler said.

One of those policies has created a community gardening program in the city, a program that follows certain procedures.

The city, Fowler noted, has decided that it did not want vacant lots in Oakhill that it is planning to have builders build on tied up with a community garden.

Initially, she said, the city proposed one site off Otis Road for the neighborhood association’s community garden, a site which Richards said had too little direct sunlight. Fowler didn’t disagree.

Richards then decided to put the garden in Poet’s Park, a city-owned triangular space on 12th Avenue SE where the neighborhood association has maintained beds for prairie flowers the last couple years.

He said Tuesday he would have preferred a site a couple blocks away at 12th Avenue and Eighth Street SE with better sun. But he said Poet’s Park will do.

“We’re not trying to feed masses of people,” Richards said. The idea, he said, is to get more people caught up in the gardening bug.

By late Tuesday, Richards was talking about tilling, and City Hall’s Fowler was saying that no one had yet signed on the bottom line.

If the garden goes ahead – it sounds like that is likely – Richards said he will be a little disappointed and will move on from there.

“There are battles worth fighting,” he said, adding that fighting City Hall about being denied a first choice for a garden spot isn’t one of those battles.

Richards pointed to an earlier battle in the last year that proved successful. In that instance, the city finally required Penford Products to stop running a steady stream of semi-trailer trucks down Third Street SE in the heart of Oakhill and New Bohemia simply to have them park at the old Sinclair site to wait to unload corn back across the river at the Penford plant.

Richards, the neighborhood association and New Bohemia just two weeks ago also saw the City Council move ahead with a stalled plan to renovate Third Street SE between Eighth and 14th avenues SE. The section of street is the heart of the New Bohemia arts and cultural district.

But battles over that remain.

The New Bohemia group backs a modern street design, while some of the property owners want a more historic approach. And just two weeks ago, the council decided that it expected property owners to contribute to the cost of the project. When initially conceived several years ago, the Third Street SE renovation was going to be paid for by the city as part of the city’s plan to create a special arts district.


Plans for city’s new animal shelter progressing; CR serving Marion during Humane Society shelter probe

In City Hall, Humane Society, Jerry McGrane, Marion on April 22, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Police Sgt. Kent Choate, who oversees the city of Cedar Rapids’ animal control operation, reported this week that City Hall is moving ahead on its plans to move the city shelter from an old sewage treatment plant seven miles from downtown to a more centralized location.

“We’re looking at a lot of different options. There is no front-runner right now,” Choate said.

Among the options are empty big-box stores and other buildings closer to the center of the city. The seven-mile trip to the existing shelter on Old River Road SW just isn’t very efficient, Choate pointed out.

He noted, too, that the City Council has set aside $1.5 million in its capital improvement budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 for a new animal shelter.

Developments at the city’s animal shelter have taken a side seat in recent weeks to those at a second shelter in the metro area, the Cedar Valley Humane Society shelter.

In late March, the Marion Police Department raided the Humane Society shelter and seized billing records. The department continues to investigate possible overbilling.

In response, the Humane Society has appointed one of its volunteers to oversee the management of its shelter operation and has asked the Iowa Veterinary Board and the Cedar Rapids Civil Service Commission to take a look at the shelter’s practices.

More recently, Jerry McGrane, Cedar Rapids council member, has wondered if the time might be right for the city to approach the Humane Society anew to see about joining forces on a combined animal shelter. Early efforts at that over the last year failed.

City Manager Jim Prosser told the council just last week that city staff was in the process of talking to the Humane Society again.

Choate this week, though, noted that the missions of the two groups are different. The city’s first mission is animal control, while the Humane Society’s first mission is not that, he said.

Choate noted that the city of Cedar Rapids is providing temporary animal control and shelter services to the city of Marion pending the Marion Police Department’s investigation into the Humane Society’s animal shelter.

Marion’s City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said it made sense for the city of Marion to turn to the city of Cedar Rapids for now until the probe of the Humane Society’s shelter is complete and its results known.

Pluckhahn did not rule out a future in which the city of Marion permanently contracted with the city of Cedar Rapids for animal control or shelter services. That’s not apt to happen, he suggested, if Cedar Rapids’ new shelter ended up being located far from the city of Marion as is the city’s current shelter. But if a spot in easy reach of Marion was chosen for the city’s new animal shelter site, that might allow Marion to take a look, Pluckhahn said.

The Humane Society’s shelter has been serving areas in Linn County outside of the city of Cedar Rapids.

Earlier this year, the Humane Society announced its own expansion plans.