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

New life for the riverfront looks likely: The effort welcomes your input, but it doesn’t need your approval this time

In Brian Fagan, Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Downtown District, Justin Shields, Tom Podzimek, Viewpoint on May 10, 2008 at 8:27 pm

All eyes once again are on the Cedar River running through downtown.

Only today, there appears to be huge differences from just five years ago — from January 2003, when some of the community’s leaders were excited about a $10.5-million grant the city had won from the state Vision Iowa Board for the RiverRun redevelopment project.

Back then, local elected officials, who were required to come up with local matching dollars to obtain the state grant, turned to the public and asked it to pass a local-option sales tax to support the project. The public voted against the tax in June 2003, and RiverRun fell apart. A scaled-down version of the project, Cedar Bend, couldn’t find local financial support, and it, too, had to give up on Vision Iowa money.

It was kind of embarrassing for Cedar Rapids.

One thing that seemed to indicate just how much things have changed in five years came in a comment council member Chuck Wieneke made during a council session May 8 at which the council was interviewing two nationally accomplished design firms in a competition to design a riverfront improvement plan for Cedar Rapids.

Wieneke told representatives from one of the firms, Sasaki Associates Inc., Watertown, Mass., that he understood that Cedar Rapids’ corporate community was buying in to the riverfront plan. But he wasn’t sure that there yet was “citizen buy-in.” He said bottom drawers at City Hall and elsewhere are lined with past plans for the riverfront and downtown that never came to anything. He said citizens know that. He said citizen buy-in was important to him.

Both design firms, Sasaki and Close Landscape Architecture+, Minneapolis, detailed their approaches for incorporating public comment into the design process.

But, in truth, what the public thinks at this point isn’t going to matter as vitally as it did in the RiverRun days.

No one is talking about any tax or bond votes this time.

This time the City Council already has committed money, new state money looks like a sure bet and, by all accounts, corporate Cedar Rapids is ready to open the private-sector wallet.

The only public votes that will matter will be the ones in November 2010 when six of the nine City Council members will be up for reelection.

This is one of those times when the city’s elected officials are running with the idea that the public elected them to make some decisions on their own, not with polls, market surveys or ballot initiatives.

………………………………………………

The May 8 council session with the two riverfront design firms was a treat to watch. It went something like this:

This time, the pretty pictures will not be rolled up and placed in a City Hall basement to gather dust, predicted Bruce Jacobson, partner with Close Landscape Architecture+, one of the two consulting firms picked as finalists among 18 applicants to help create a new riverfront design for the city of Cedar Rapids.

This time, Jacobson said, stuff is going to get built.

That expectation is based on an incredible change in the landscape compared to just a few years ago.

That’s what Dan Thies, president/CEO of OPN Architects Inc., Cedar Rapids, assured. His firm has aligned with Sasaki Associates Inc. in the competition for the Cedar Rapids riverfront project.

“I think for the first time in a long time the community is poised for something great to happen,” Thies said.

For instance, this time, the City Council has agreed in the budget year beginning July 1 to sell $3.5 million in debt to help with downtown revitalization projects.

This time, too, the city’s biggest private employers have made financial commitments to downtown redevelopment, council members, Doug Neumann, the president/CEO of the Downtown District, and other local community leaders have said.

Also this time, local leaders — it seems a little incredible – helped convinced the Iowa Legislature and Gov. Chet Culver to create a new, $42-million pot of money for the very specific thing that Cedar Rapids city, community and corporate leaders are mobilized to do. That is, to enhance the city’s riverfront.

The new pot of money is called RECAT, Riverfront Enhancement Community Attraction and Tourism.

And Cedar Rapids’ application for the money is at the ready, awaiting the state’s Vision Iowa Board, which will dispense the RECAT money, to establish new rules for handing the money out.

The focus this time is also different. Much of talk about the big Vision Iowa projects of a few years ago was about creating unique venues to attract people to a city from far and wide.

So RiverRun ended up with a whitewater kayak course on the Cedar River, which turned out to be an idea that local voters never quite gra

This time, the idea is more about creating a downtown that people who live here and near here will first come to enjoy and embrace. Make the riverfront and the downtown the kind of place that the locals want to live near, work near and play near, is the thought.

Employees and employers will stay here, expand here and move here if the city does that. The tourists will come later.

Both designer finalists competing to help the city of Cedar Rapids redefine the Cedar River as it runs through downtown have impressive records of accomplishment.

Close Landscape Architecture+ showed off all it has down along the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities, while Sasaki Associates showed off major riverfront project in big cities like Cincinnati and Indianapolis and smaller ones like Stamford, Conn., and Wheeling, W.Va.

Sasaki representatives Mark Dawson and Gina Ford also used the time with the council to show off some ideas and images of what could happen to Cedar Rapids’ riverfront and downtown.

The images were surprising:

One turned First Street SW along the river into a “great boulevard” with three rows of trees and new multi-story buildings on the streets west side, facing the river.

A second picture imagined moving the existing dam, above downtown, to below downtown, a move that would raise the water level downtown and turn it in a sheet of water. Boaters could boat in-season, ice skaters could skate in winter.

A third picture had a riverfront amphitheater, on the river’s west side, just upriver from the police station and looking across the river to the heart of downtown.

There were spectacular renderings of a pedestrian/bicyclist bridge across the river, touching at the base of May’s Island.

Both design firms have had much experience in creating riverfront features that are able to endure flooding in the periodic times when the river floods.

Part of Cedar Rapids’ need is to figure out a way to deal with flooding through the downtown without the existing, unsightly flood walls.

Those walls, as it turns out, do not provide necessary protection against a 100-year flood, the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined in the last year.

As a result, the designer picked to create a master plan for the downtown will be working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on flood issues.

As interesting as anything at the council/design-consultant session was OPN Architects’ Thies unveiling of a rendering for a Great America II building, which he said his firm is in the process of working on. The idea is that the building would be built along the river next to the Great America building, the last multistory building to go up downtown. Great America II is planned to include retail, riverfront restaurant, offices and top-story residential units, Thies said.

Thies’ firm also is working with Sherman Associates, Minneapolis, the “preferred” developer selected by the City Council to provide a first new downtown housing development.

At the same time, the city is moving ahead on plans to build a new Intermodal Transit Facility at Ninth Avenue and Third Street SE. And the city is still waiting for federal construction money so the long-planned federal courthouse can move ahead. It’s will go up between the river and Second Street SE and Eighth and Seventh avenues SE and will face back toward downtown.

At the May 8 council session, council member Justin Shields wondered about the possibility of making the river in downtown an attraction 12 months of the year.

Council colleague Tom Podzimek talked about his interest in a creative approach to flood control so that the downtown would not require an unsightly flood levee. To that, Sasaki Associates representative Gina Ford pointed to the riverfront park in Cincinnati that she said is built to flood. “Flood protection doesn’t mean you have to build walls,” she said.

Council member Brian Fagan said he wanted the riverfront effort to serve as a catalyst for downtown revitalization.

To that, Sasaki representative Mark Dawson said his design idea would “leverage” the river, what he called the downtown’s greatest asset.

“Now it’s down and out of sight and not touchable,” Dawson said. He pointed to his firm’s riverfront project in Reading, Pa., in which cleaning up the riverfront and turning building windows to face the river had people really seeing the river there for the first time.

Fagan said he understood that it might take 10 to 15 years to complete a riverfront revitalization. But he also said the council was interested in a “quick turnaround” on at least part of the effort.

OPN’s Thies said “great rigor” had been shown over some months to line up corporate, state and local government support for the riverfront and downtown.

“There is energy, momentum and excitement right now,” he said. He talked about “finding that piece” of a long-range effort that can serve as a “demonstration project” to prove that something substantial is in the offing.

Close Landscape Architecture+’s Bob Close said the task is to turn the Cedar River into more than just a “ribbon” of water. The idea is to make it a place that local people repeatedly will seek out and want to be near.

That could mean trails, public art and a riverfront amphitheater, he said.

Close’s Bruce Jacobson pointed to all-grass, 18-hole miniature golf course near the river in Minneapolis where it’s difficult to get a tee time, he said. He talked about the need to animate, activate and populate the riverfront.

 

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  1. Their proposals appear to be realistic and appropriate. I wish them the best!

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