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

Council to unleash public debate on a new City Hall; Do Twin Pines and Westdale prove that the public can have a say on big issues?

In City Hall, Jim Prosser on February 18, 2009 at 8:45 am

It’s not clear if the brouhahas of the last couple years over the Twin Pines Golf Course and Westdale Mall are relevant to the newest City Hall-engineered public debate that is now set to emerge.

But they might be relevant. Those past debates might be instructive.

What the City Council intends to do this evening is begin a six-to-nine-month “public participation process” to see if it makes sense for the public to spend money to build new public buildings.

Joining the council in the public discussion are the Linn County Board of Supervisors and the Cedar Rapids school board. All three entities have had their central administrative offices damaged by last June’s flood.

The three groups of elected officials want to see – and they want the public to help them see – whether they should build a new Community Services Center where all three central administrative operations would locate. The site might include one building or a campus of buildings.

City consultant Sasaki Associates Inc. has said one of any number of potential sites for such a campus would be on the west side of the Cedar River between the Cedar River and Interstate 380.

This discussion over a new Community Services Center likely will draw more attention to the City Council’s piece of the debate because the council is talking about moving most of city government to a new building and leaving the city’s historic Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island for other uses.

The City Council also will ask the public if it supports a Community Safety Training Center, which would feature training classes and areas for firefighters and law enforcement officers and might be located at Kirkwood Community College. And the council also is looking at Community Operations Center, which could mean just reconfiguring the city’s existing Public Works Building to handle some county and school vehicle maintenance functions.

Pete Welch, chairman of the city’s Veterans Memorial Commission, has expressed concern over many months about the City Council’s plans for the May’s Island City Hall. The city, county and school district have been meeting for months with city consultant Camp Dresser & McKee Inc. to discuss ideas about “co-locating” in a building or campus of buildings as a prelude to the next six to nine months of public debate on the idea.

Welch has worried that the script and its ending already have been written and that the co-location idea will win a ringing endorsement when all is said and done.

On the other hand, City Manager Jim Prosser dismisses such a suggestion. Prosser says elected officials never really know where a public debate will lead once it begins. You just got to trust it will get you to the correct outcome whatever it might be, Prosser says.

The Welch-Prosser comments bring back the memory of the Twin Pines Golf Course and the city’s vision for Westdale Mall.

Out at Twin Pines, the council toyed with the idea of selling a piece of the course to pay to make needed repairs to it. Suffice to say the idea wasn’t embraced by some in the public. City Hall created a special task force, which met at public meetings for months before concluding that selling a piece of the course was a bad idea. That was the end of it. The latest: The council has now agreed to use property-tax revenue to help pay the golf operation’s debts instead of making it rely solely on golf fees.

Out at Westdale Mall –- this was in 2007 before flood recovery became all-consuming — the City Council decided to take a look at the failing mall to see if it could help provide a vision for its future. Westdale Mall is in the same boat as scores of mall across the nation, and the city hired a mall expert to come in and talk about what other places have done to revitalize such “greyfield” properties.

The expert came up with some ideas that would transform the mall from just a retail center into something that was part retail, part office and part residential with the thought that a space there could be made for a public library branch.

The mall owner had no interest. Those from the public who spoke at public open houses said they didn’t want to give up the mall as is. A few local Realtors said the mall could be brought back to life. And a few developers were mad because the city asked them to wait before they cherry-picked parcels on the exterior of the mall site to build minor projects.

Eventually, after that public participation process, the council moved on. The mall is in worse shape now and no developer has followed through in building a strip mall or something else on the mall’s perimeter.

At its meeting tonight, the City Council is proposed to create a steering committee to oversee the public participation process related to the building of a Community Services Center as well as a Community Safety Training Center and Community Operations Center.

The steering committee will consist of two representatives from the council, the county supervisors and the school board.

As now planned, the steering committee initially will seek proposals for two positions: a process manager, who will coordinate the public participation process; and a planning advisor, who will work on determining things like space requirements, design and construction costs that would come with building buildings.

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