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Archive for May 16th, 2008|Daily archive page

Chapter closes on Osada low-income apartments; new one is opening on Bottleworks condos; first units ready in August

In Alliant Energy, City Hall, Kris Gulick, New Bohemia on May 16, 2008 at 2:29 pm

New life for the empty Osada building has begun to take shape.

Fred Timko, president of Point Builders Inc. of Cedar Rapids, reports that his company has begun the renovation of the Osada building from its former self, 67 units of low-income loft apartments, to its new self, 58 condominium units.

The first four condo units — units will be priced generally between $100,000 and $200,000 — should be ready for display in August, Timko reports.

Timko is calling the new condos, Bottleworks. The five-story, warehouse-style building, at 905 Third St. SE, once was just that, a Hires Root Beer bottleworks, he says.

The progress on the Osada transformation came to mind this week when Tom Aller and Jim Ernst made appearances at the City Council meeting.

Aller is president if Alliant Energy’s subsidiary Interstate Power and Light Co.; Ernst, president/CEO of the family services agency, Four Oaks.

Both were big players in seeing to it that something came of the failed Osada project.

Osada was created a decade ago in a complicated, creative financing arrangement that included upfront money from Alliant Investments Inc. in exchange for the federal government awarding Alliant tax credits against some of the company’s federal tax load.

Alliant, thus, was a limited, behind-the-scenes partner in the Osada project with the MidAmerica Housing Partnership. And then MAHP failed last fall.

Four Oaks stepped in to operate the assortment of MAHP properties, and it since has created the Affordable Housing Network to assume control of the former MAHP units.

But as Ernst told the City Council again this week, the  Osada project was simply too big and too financially troubled to continue in its role as a low-income housing.

In the financial agreements between the Iowa Finance Authority, Alliant and Timko in closing the books on Osada, a Timko-led entity called BPI-GRR LLC, has paid about $3.1 million for the Osada building, money that the Authority and Alliant have taken to try to cover what they had invested  the property. Neither the Authority nor Alliant was expected to be made whole on their investments.

From the $3.1 million, Aller presented a check of $175,000 to Ernst and the Affordable Housing Network as part of that financial settlement closing out the former life of the Osada venture.

Ernst, in turn, handed the check to the city of Cedar Rapids to cover liens the city held against another former MAHP property, the 15-unit Brown Apartments, 1234 Fourth Ave. SE. The check to the city, Ernst explained in front of the City Council, clears the way for a new, $2-million tax-credit investment that will allow for the renovation of the Brown Apartments for affordable housing.

In front of the council, Aller thanked Ernst and Four Oaks for its role in stepping in to rescue most of the MAHP properties and to help figure out a new life for the Osada building.

“Cedar Rapids is a better place because of what Jim Ernst and Four Oaks have done,” Aller said.

Ernst said every resident of the former Osada project who has chosen so has been placed in a new living situation here, and all of those people have spoken positively of the move, he said.

Ernst told the council that the city is in great need of more affordable housing units, particularly three- and four-bedroom apartments.

Council member Kris Gulick asked Ernst about affordable-housing demand, and Ernst said there were over 1,000 families that could benefit from additional affordable housing in the community.

As a side note, Point Builders’ Timko says he thinks the city’s proposal to build its new Intermodal Transit Facility across Third Street SE from Bottleworks will enhance the Bottleworks property and be an asset for those who come to live there. The Intermodal will be a scaled-back version of a former design, which incorporated a 500-vehicle parking ramp into the design.

Timko also is one of the people on a new committee to try to hash out differing ideas on the design of the Third Street SE renovation project, which the City Council has given the go-ahead on. The New Bohemia group has wanted a more modern design, while some property owners have insisted on a Czech theme similar to Czech Village across the river. Timko isn’t from either camp.


City Hall trots out street-design ideas to metro planning group; it’s not like singing to the choir

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Marion, Monica Vernon on May 16, 2008 at 2:13 am

The Linn County Regional Planning Commission has had a new name for some months now, Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization.

It’s comprised of representatives, many of them elected officials, from Cedar Rapids, Marion, Linn County, Hiawatha, Robins and a few smaller communities, with the city of Cedar Rapids having the most votes.

One of its primary roles is to prioritize road projects in the metro area that are deserving of certain federal and state dollars.

At its meeting on Thursday, it seemed like a nice place for Brian Fagan, the group’s chairman and a Cedar Rapids City Council member, to trot out two ideas that have gained some traction among Fagan and most of his council colleagues, but haven’t really been road tested.

The two ideas really are two pieces of the same central idea, which is don’t just lay bigger, wider stretches of concrete or asphalt without consideration for the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit and beautification. One piece is called “complete streets;” the other, Context Sensitive Solutions or Context Sensitive Design.”

At one recent Cedar Rapids City Council meeting, council member Monica Vernon, who shares Fagan’s advocacy for the ideas, at one point wasn’t sure she routinely favored turn lanes in future projects. This prompted council colleague Justin Shields, who represents a west-side council district, to sheepishly tell Vernon that the westside still liked turn lanes.

At Thursday’s Corridor MPO meeting, Fagan was leading the discussion on the complete-streets idea with the goal being for the planning group to develop a policy on using it and the context-design idea. Other planning groups and state departments of transportation suggest that such policies include the ability to make exceptions once the project cost is driven up, say by 20 percent, by the need to have, not just a street, but a complete street or a street with context sensitive design.

Well, it took no time at all for one of the Marion representatives on the planning board, Boyd Potter, to start scratching his head and wondering just what Fagan and the Cedar Rapids City Council might want the smaller Marion to sign on to.

Potter, a real estate broker, said the sound of the concepts was all well and good, but smaller cities with limited street-building funds often are looking to get “the most bang for the buck” in actually getting a street built.

Potter worried that any new design policy adopted by the Corridor board, which prioritizes street projects in the metro area for certain kinds of funding, might send a Marion project to the bottom of the list if Marion was unwilling to spend more to add some of the extras to a project.

Marion itself might not require of itself that it use sensitive-design approach, but funding for Marion projects funneled through the MPO might be held up if Marion didn’t sign on to the approach, Boyd said. He didn’t like that.

Hiawatha’s mayor, Tom Thies, said he was puzzled, too. Thies said what he knew of complete streets was that the approach most often was used in business districts, and not in streets throughout the city.

He noted that Hiawatha is opening its new  City Hall downtown, and has some street plans related to that. A discussion of complete streets might work there, he said. But he couldn’t imagine, for instance, building such a thing all the way to the western edge of the city.

If nothing else then, Thursday, Fagan and other Cedar Rapids City Hall advocates of complete streets and context design got to see what it’s like after kind of singing to the choir for months among most the Cedar Rapids City Council.

It should be noted that Fagan doesn’t seem so sure that building quality is necessarily more expensive, and he is pretty sure that building as much pavement for as little cost hurts a community in the long run.

For him, complete streets are about “connectivity” – figuring out a way to get people on foot, bikes, motor vehicles, buses, you name it, from one place like schools, neighborhoods, trails and commercial centers, to another. For him, context sensitive design is about paying attention to where “the built world engages with the natural world.”

And by way of another context: City Hall has just floated an idea its very early stages to expand First Avenue East beyond 19th Street East from five to seven lanes as the city was readying for its first election in its council/manager government back in 2005. Fagan and others now on the council mentioned their opposition to a seven-lane First Avenue East all the way to a seat on the City Council.

Just this week, too, an impatient Monica Vernon pushed Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer, about just what complete-street features were being incorporated into the city’s plan to pave Wilson Avenue SW from Arlington Street to Stoney Point Road at a cost of $1 million. Elgin noted that the Wilson Avenue SW project had been in the shoot for some time and so did not use any formal complete-street process in its design. But he said features of the approach were used. The road, for now, will have a sidewalk on one side, Elgin noted.