The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

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.


  1. The whole thing is so disappointing. We change the form of city government so we will have a council that is responsive to the wants and needs of its citizens, then watch as they shift the responsibility away from themselves to do the right thing by dumping it into the Parks Directors bailey wick. Completely blind sided by this turn of events, she has her own turf to watch over. Without further ado, the city will sit on all the vacant lots till hell freezes over waiting for some developer to sweep all the property back onto the tax rolls, fill their hands with money, and everything will be right in the world! What a rosey picture, except it isn’t going to happen. The lots will sit there and nothing will be gained from the property except having to mow the grass and keep the weeds down for years. For some reason they should worry a mighty throng of citizenry will clamor to want this space for gardens? What to do? What to do? How about letting them have it with the stipulation that if suddenly someone wants to use that lot they will have to vacate the premisies within 48 hours and take what you want with you, otherwise the developer is moving in and whatever is going to be built can be. How hard is that? If someone grows food on these lots it will only lower the cities dependence on fossil fuels somewhat, put food on a persons table that otherwise would not be there, and the city officials look like they have really done something without spending dollar one! How is that not a win – win situation?

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