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Archive for May 31st, 2008|Daily archive page

Former well-known City Council members Hanson and Zahn seek key Linn County offices: Does the Hy-Vee vote say anything you like about either of them?

In City Hall, Linn County government on May 31, 2008 at 10:14 pm

Elected officials cast oodles of votes over time, and dragging just one vote from the dust bin of local history is iffy at best.

But it’s tempting.

The temptation came in recent days when a couple of young professionals, who have recently moved to Cedar Rapids, were talking about the First Avenue Hy-Vee Food Store, pointing out that it was different than the grocer’s other suburban-style stores in Cedar Rapids.

The store at 1556 First Ave. NE is different: It is Hy-Vee’s only store in an urban neighborhood in Cedar Rapids.

It’s smaller than other stores. It has a warehouse-style like a Sam’s Club store. The floors are polished concrete. The customer base is the city’s most diverse. Some people actually walk to shop there.

These youngster pros, though, had no idea how the 6-year-old store came to be and they didn’t know the great community debate that preceded the store’s construction.

Do you remember it?

Two former Cedar Rapids City Council members who cast votes on the First Avenue NE store’s future back in 2001 now are running for key elective Linn County offices.

Lyle Hanson, who served two stints as Cedar Rapids finance commissioner/council member, is on Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot, giving incumbent Linn County Auditor Joel Miller a run for his seat.

And David Zahn, who served as Cedar Rapids public safety commissioner/council member, is running as a Republican for Linn County sheriff. Zahn is not being challenged in Tuesday’s primary, but will have a Democrat to contend with in November.

Hanson voted against providing Hy-Vee Food Stores with $915,000 in local incentives upfront to build their new store at the First Avenue site, while Zahn, after some uncertainty, became the third and decisive backer of the incentives. His backing cleared the way for the new store to be built.

It was a great debate. It remains a great debate. Thousands of people in Cedar Rapids drive by the store everyday on busy First Avenue East near downtown. What do you think about the store when you drive by?

After all, City Hall had not been in the business of extending tax incentives, usually used for industrial projects, for a retail store.

Were the incentives fair to other grocers? Should Wal-Mart or Target or Aldi or Fareway get incentives when they decide to build somewhere?

Hanson, who at the end of the day cast the lone “no” vote on the project, concluded that the city’s upfront cost for the Hy-Vee project was too high. He thought, too, that the city ought to spend some time to see if other grocery chains might be willing to build on the site. Maybe another grocer would do it for less, he said.

Zahn finally concluded that the issue was as much about neighborhood revitalization and public safety as it was about retailing. Older urban neighborhoods like the two that depend on the First Avenue NE store – Wellington Heights and Mound View – deteriorate when they lose their grocery store, Zahn concluded.

He noted, too, that the city had intended to use incentives for a nearby industry, Cedarapids Inc., but the industry had not met job retention and hiring requirements. So the city had tax revenue it could steer to the Hy-Vee store, Zahn argued.

As recently as 2001, the Hy-Vee store at 1556 First Ave. NE was a tiny, century-old eyesore that Hy-Vee had been readying to desert for a year or more and neighborhood leaders had spent a decade trying to get Hy-Vee to replace.

Then-Mayor Lee Clancey and then-Parks Commissioner Dale Todd lobbied Hy-Vee hard to work with the city to come up with a way to build rather than flee.

At the store groundbreaking in October 2001, Ron Pearson, Hy-Vee president, said neither Hy-Vee nor any grocery chain in the world could have built a new store on the site without city help.

Pearson said he told Clancey, “We have looked at every number know to a human being, and I can’t take it to our stockholders and tell them we’re going to build a project and lose money forever.”

The grocer had been leasing the former store, a 13,000-square-foot testament to a long-gone era of grocery sales.

The near-$1-million city incentive came in the form of tax-increment financing, and is an amount the city will recoup over 20 years from the increase in property taxes the new store and other new development will generate in the urban renewal district that the store is in.

The city money was used to purchase land, demolish the old store and pay for a nicer exterior to the new store.

At the groundbreaking, Pearson said Hy-Vee was investing $5 million in the store. He said the new store would employ twice as many employees as the 50 in the old store.

The new store is a 26,000-square-foot one, which is less than half the size of most of its suburban-style stores, the company said at the time.

Among those at the groundbreaking was council member Hanson. Being on the short end of a council vote wasn’t going to keep him away from where the city was headed, and where it was spending its money.

Clancey and Todd didn’t survive the 2001 election, while Hanson and Zahn were reelected.

Clancey said at the time she didn’t know if backing the First Avenue Hy-Vee cost her some votes elsewhere in the city. It shouldn’t have: The store was good for the entire community, she said then.

Vernon takes to the wheel to see city’s streets, its battlegrounds, its future up close

In City Hall, Monica Vernon on May 31, 2008 at 4:02 am

Monica Vernon is thinking of trading in the SUV for a little hybrid.

Vernon, the District 2 council member elected last November, just can’t stop driving around Cedar Rapids, she says.

“I didn’t realize what a visual person I am,” she says. “I want to see what’s happening or not happening. It’s amazing once you get out here what you see.”

Day had followed Wednesday night and Vernon was still eager to talk about two high-drama council decisions, both involving plenty of objecting neighbors from nicer, new neighborhoods.

Neighbors lost to developers in both instances in what is the first, though probably the biggest, of a three-inning battle.

The council agreed, 7-2, to change the city’s future land-use map to allow a Walgreens drug store on C Avenue NE in what is a stand of timber next to a Road Ranger convenience store. And the council made a land-use change, 6-2, to allow for the proposed Tudor Rose condominium project on six west-side acres that now are home to the Baumhoefener Nursery.

Vernon opposed the first, which is in her council district, and voted with the council majority on Tudor Rose.

The two developments now need to get zoning changes, which is a much easier task once the land-use has changed, and then a site plan approval.

Vernon was behind the wheel Thursday morning to provide a first-hand look at both developments, a look she clearly has had before.

The president of her own market research company and a former member of the City Planning Commission, Vernon was pointing out her reservations about the Walgreens proposal as now conceived.

The land-use change, she noted, puts a commercial development right next to single-family homes when the preferred land-use policy is to have a softer property classification – office/service or multifamily residential – between single family homes and a commercial development like a Walgreens.

In this instance, the developer and property owner made creative peace with neighbors closest to the development by giving each of them a piece of the timber to add to their back yards to buffer them from the Walgreens. So those neighbors are happy.

But Vernon still wasn’t sure. How’s the design of the Walgreens going to look? she wondered. She was talking red brick, with maybe some ivy on it to help it blend in.

One of Vernon’s focuses as a council member is city streets, and she has begun to persistently advocate for building streets that are both pretty and functional and serve motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Where are the trees, she asked, as she drove north on C Avenue NE? She liked the idea of trees between the street and sidewalk. Trees beautify and calm, she said. She talked about what a planted median can do for swaths of concrete when C Avenue NE turns from four to five lanes.

From the back seat, she grabbed a street-design plan from Charlotte, N.C., a city that considers certain, important streets “signature” streets that need special care.

Vernon turned her SUV around where Tower Terrace Road will be coming through west to east, from Hiawatha to Highway 13. She hoped for planted medians, sidewalks and trails to make it a signature street.

On she drove: Where are the sidewalks, she wondered, around the Rockwell Collins campus? Out on Collins Road NE, which is slated for widening in the years ahead, she was talking about the sidewalks and landscaping that would come with changes there.

She made note of the grassy median on Edgewood Road NW west of the Cedar River, but she then scratched her head that an occasional utility pole, not trees, were sticking up in the median.

At Wiley Boulevard and Johnson Avenue NW, she drove around the block to get a feel for how the proposed Tudor Rose condominium project and the existing neighborhood would fit together. Tudor Rose won’t be much taller than some of the houses, she said. Retirees in condominiums, she added, won’t generate much traffic. She had no regrets about her Wednesday evening vote in favor of the project.

And so it went. There were drive-bys or stops to look at where the city’s new Intermodal Transit Facility is slated to go; where the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library is expanding; where the city’s housing initiative is beginning in the Oak Hill Neighborhood.

The last of Vernon’s three daughters is headed off to college, and Vernon was talking about the life of a mother who spent time hauling daughters and friends around town.

With daughters gone, she now has the issues confronting the City Council to keep her behind the wheel.

“But I need to get a Prius,” she said.