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

Minneapolis developer adds fresh ideas for riverfront: indoor farmers market, hotel, conference center, plaza, housing

In City Hall, Downtown District, Monica Vernon on May 23, 2008 at 2:24 pm

If you squint just right you can start to see pretty pictures turn to reality, can’t you?

This week, accomplished Minneapolis developer/builder/property manager George Sherman came to City Hall again to dazzle the City Council — with photos of his projects in the Twin Cities, Des Moines, Kansas City, St. Louis; and with his ideas and images of what he would like to do in Cedar Rapids.

Imagine: The creaky, old First Street Parkade, which is slated for demolition, is gone across from the Alliant building and in its place, between Second and Third avenues, is a new 140-150-room hotel, with conference space, riverfront restaurant, riverfront plaza for nightlife and condominiums on the hotel’s top floor or floors.

Imagine: A 38,500 square foot, indoor farmers market, with space for outdoor vending in season, as well as a riverfront restaurant and a four-story apartment building (the first floor, which is in a floodplain, would be for parking) along Eighth Avenue SE in what now is the little-used, concrete swath called the city’s Park & Ride lot. The new federal courthouse is expected to go up across Eighth Avenue from the site.

Eventually, over six to eight years, the idea would be for a larger, mixed-use development, with a total of 300-400 apartments, 150 condominiums and a little retail to follow the first construction in the Park & Ride lot.

Imagine: On the west side of the river, upstream from the police station, 40 to 50 units of senior housing along the riverfront.

“I think you nailed it,” council member Monica Vernon told Sherman this week.

In a competition among developers, the City Council picked Sherman in January as its “preferred” developer for a first project of downtown housing. By picking a preferred developer, the council’s intent is to trade incentives for what will be a development with some risk in a still uncertain downtown housing market. At the same time, too, the city will be able to emphasize certain design standards it might not otherwise be able to ask for.

In March, Sherman told the council that he would build rental units before for-sale units because of the downturn in the housing market in Iowa, and to a greater extent, in much of the nation.

In Sherman’s return visit to City Hall this week, you could get the sense that City Manager Jim Prosser has ears, too, and that he hears a little of the urgency from City Council and, no doubt, others that they want to see talk, consulting, planning and designing turn to getting something built.

Prosser told the council this week that now it and the community have an “experienced developer” on hand and an accomplished riverfront planner in place. A year-old downtown revitalization plan, which is viewed as something of a bible for the revitalization of downtown and the area around it, also remains front and center.

“We intended to do just what we’re doing,” Prosser said.

The planner is Sasaki Associates, Watertown, Mass., which the council picked a week ago to create a master plan for the city’s riverfront.

Sasaki representatives have tossed out their own head-turning brainstorms — a riverfront amphitheater right downtown; First Street West as a  “great boulevard;” maybe moving the dam below downtown, which would raise the river and turn it into a “sheet” of water that would look nicer and could be used for boating and ice skating in winter.

Sherman, founder and owner of Sherman Associates, said this week that he would watch Sasaki as it developed its riverfront plan to see how his housing ideas could fit into it.

OPN Architects Inc. of Cedar Rapids is working with both Sasaki and Sherman.

By contract, the Sasaki firm should have ideas for downtown riverfront redevelopment in place in 120 days.

Both firms — coming from the outside as they do — have a way of sounding as if they have a fresh insight that a place can’t have about itself.

For instance, Sherman this week said Cedar Rapids has not enjoyed the downtown growth that other Midwest cities have.

At the same time, Sherman said that Iowa, with its robust farm economy, has weathered the national economic downturn better than most other places, excepting Wyoming, Seattle and a few other spots.

Even so, he said it likely will take until 2010 for developers like himself to get interested anew in building more for-sale housing, though he said now is the time to begin planning. However, he expected current problems in credit markets to fix themselves a year earlier, in 2009, so that banks will be in a position to provide capital for building projects by then.

Sherman’s immediate interest in Cedar Rapids is not the downtown, but the near-downtown.

He said he will try to find a site this summer between the two hospitals to build 40 to 80 units of “workplace housing” to provide walkable, safe rental units for hospital employees who want to live close to work.

Sherman predicted that the price of gasoline will never drop from where it is today, and as a result, more people really will want to be within walking distance of work.

He said his first downtown project is apt to be the apartments, indoor farmers market and riverfront restaurant along Eighth Avenue SE because the site for a hotel across from the Alliant building likely wouldn’t be ready for development until parking is found elsewhere to replace the parkade there.

Sherman said different cities build along the riverfront differently. San Antonio has built right up to the water, while Minneapolis keeps buildings back.

 

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