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

Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

City reveals plans to modernize U.S. Cellular Center and to add a new convention center as projects compete for council backing and federal funds

In City Hall on March 25, 2009 at 5:25 pm

Plans surfaced last night to spend an estimated $50 million to modernize the U.S. Cellular Center and to add a new convention center next to it.

Patrick DePalma, the chairman of the city’s Five Seasons Facilities Commission, revealed the proposal to the City Council last night and said it could help revitalize downtown and spur the building of a new hotel as well as restaurants and shops.

Outside the meeting, DePalma said the commission looked at a range of options for the event center and a convention center and exhibition hall, including a $120-million option that would build a new complex at another site.

But the commission, he said, is recommending a refurbishing of the U.S. Cellular Center and adding a 60,000-square-foot convention center and exhibition hall next to it.

The refurbishment would not enlarge the arena, but would add luxury seating and new concession areas.
The plan also would close Third Street between First and A avenues NE and purchase and demolish commercial buildings and a parking ramp that now sit across Third Street NE from the arena. The convention center would go up on what is street and on the newly created space.

DePalma said the commission likes the idea of a new hotel being built across First Avenue from the U.S. Cellular Center which also could feed the arena and a new convention center.

DePalma, a vice president at AEGON USA, noted the commission has worked with an architect as it developed plans.

He revealed the commission’s plans on a night in which the council was preparing to rank which projects it thought most deserved support from the federal government.

Ten different projects are competing for limited funds from the Economic Development Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The City Council has placed the U.S. Cellular Center project fifth on the list of 10.

At the top of the council’s list is a proposal to revitalize the downtown steam system.

Shannon Meyer, president/CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, lobbied the council last night to move a proposed Regional Commerce Center up the priority list. Six other projects were ahead of it on the list, including a public fiber-optic system, a proposed regional recreation/community center and new steam systems for the hospitals and Coe College.

The recreation/community center and the modernization of the U.S. Cellular Center are projects on the list of the Fifteen in 5 community initiative, the goal of which is to complete 15 projects in five years. Fifteen in 5 began in 2005.

The Chamber’s Meyer said the council needed to pick projects that already have submitted plans to the federal government — like the Regional Commerce Center.

She noted that funds are limited, and that a project in Coralville already has secured an $8-million grant and a project in Waverly has received a $9-million grant from these U.S. Department of Commerce funds.

Doug Neumann, director of the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp., was the first to start preparing local projects for Commerce Department funding. He noted that the Linn County Board of Supervisors ranked the fiber-optic project at the top. This project is designed to connect county, city and school buildings with their own fiber-optic lines.

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Forging ahead in flood-damaged New Bo, Czech Village and Time Check: a Neighborhood Development Corp. with a $1.5-million infusion of state cash is coming

In City Hall, Neighborhoods on March 25, 2009 at 1:00 pm

The City Council has created a new non-profit corporation, the Neighborhood Development Corp., and, in so doing, the council will funnel $1.5 million in state grant money to the endeavor.

Carol Bower, who has run a similar non-profit corporation in Des Moines and who has been providing advice to the city of Cedar Rapids since the fall, has been chosen to run the Cedar Rapids operation.

In conversations Wednesday with Bower and Marty Hoeger, the city of Cedar Rapids’ real estate development coordinator, the two said the new Neighborhood Development Corp. will become a driving force behind reinvestment in the city’s core neighborhoods, particularly those now trying to get back on their feet since the June 2008 flood.

The operation will focus on helping bring about the building of affordable housing, but look for it to concentrate, too, on revitalizing neighborhood commercial development as well.

Hoeger said the commercial development effort is likely to focus on Czech Village, New Bohemia and the Ellis Boulevard area of Time Check.

“The idea is to get businesses back into those neighborhoods,” Hoeger said.

Look for the Neighborhood Development Corp. to quickly identify properties in need of redevelopment and, in some instances, to acquire the property and “get it back online,” said Hoeger.

The corporation will operate independently of the city of Cedar Rapids. It will have a nine-person board. Three of the members will be from neighborhoods; four will be people in the business community familiar with development; and an elected official or employee from both the city and county governments will round out the board.

Cautionary letters from Army Corps and state of Iowa suggest a City Hall not in idle, but one pushing to open doors for flood-disaster help

In City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser on March 24, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Two letters with a similar cautionary tone arrived at City Hall in the last few days. One was from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; one from the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

As much as anything the letters portray a Cedar Rapids City Hall unwilling to sit by and wait for state government or Uncle Sam to show up with big bags of money on the day or time upon which they decide.

Instead, the letters suggest that Cedar Rapids city government is testing the limits and the rules and working to convince the federal and state governments to use some creativity to try to give the city of Cedar Rapids the ability to buy out flood-damaged homes faster than the rules now allow.

The city’s central request is that it be allowed to use an expected large infusion of Community Development Block Grants to buy out 550 or so flood-damaged homes that now sit in a proposed construction area where the Corps is expected to build a new levee system and where it is apt to need space to move some streets and to add a series of pumping stations.

The federal rules now say that those property cannot be bought out until the Corps has its flood-protection feasibility study approved, which isn’t expected before June 2010.

What City Manager Jim Prosser is pushing for is for the city to have the ability to use CDBG funds from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development to buy those homes out, and then to have the Corps reimburse the city for those funds (or give the city credit toward money it must provide as a local project match) as the Corps moves ahead with its levee-building project.

“I would like to make you aware that the Federal Government does not encourage land acquisition” prior to the completion of the Corps’ feasibility study and the Corps subsequent notice-to-proceed agreement with the city, Ron Williams, acting chief of the Corps’ Partnership Support Branch, Rock Island, Ill., says in a letter to the city.

Williams then talks of the “risks” to the city. Chief among the risks is that Congress at the end of the day might not fund the city’s proposed flood-protection system. In that event, there would be no Corps’ money to pay for the buy outs that might already have occurred.

At the same time, Michael Tramontina, director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, writes to Cedar Rapids’ Prosser on a related front about the city’s plan to use city funds to pay for disaster housing relief with the anticipation that CDBG funds will be coming to reimburse the city.

“We share the goal of providing assistance as quickly as possible to eligible applicants,” Tramontina states. But he continues: “The decision to use city funds until the federal funds become available … is a risk-benefit decision for the city to evaluate.”

On Tuesday, Prosser said the letter from the Corps and the letter from the Iowa Department of Economic Development represent bureaucracy in a good sense at work. The letters put the positions of the state and federal agencies down on paper, which Prosser said helps document the issues that need resolved.

The heart of the problem, he said, is that federal programs used in disasters –- by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — are not designed for the quick actions that are needed and that people expect in a disaster.

In particular, Prosser said the city is attempting to make the case that all of the money involved is federal money whether it is CDBG funds that should be available quickly or Corps funds that won’t be available for some time.

The argument, he said, is that the federal government will save considerable money by using CDBG funds in the near-term to buy out homes in the construction area instead of waiting for the Corps to complete its flood study in the next 15 months or so. And Prosser said it also makes good public policy sense to buy out homes more quickly. Why keep people in an ongoing “indeterminate state?” he asked.

Prosser said the city is pushing ahead with “policy papers” on the matter and will be asking Gov. Chet Culver to get directly involved. Some legislative changes in Washington, D.C., might be required to allow an exception to the Corps of Engineers’ current protocols, he said.

“Certainly, they are looking for us to make a case on why there should be exceptions,” Prosser said. “The bigger problem is we’re asking them to do stuff they haven’t done before. It’s not like they are necessarily philosophically opposed to it as much as they don’t have a system in place to support the urgency that we’re pushing ahead with.”

Just a week ago, FEMA announced its willingness to provide funding support for the demolition of more than 300 more flood-damaged houses that the city has concluded are too unsafe to enter. The city is currently in the process of taking down a first group of 72 homes at FEMA expense, but it required the city to make the case to FEMA before the agency agreed to add the larger number of homes to the demolition coverage, Prosser said.

The exceptions the city is now pushing for on buyouts in the proposed levee construction zone is similar to the FEMA decision on demolitions in that it requires the city to make a case to get its way.

“Although with the buyouts, the stakes are much higher, the dollar amounts are much higher and the creativity approach is pushing the limits of what the federal government has done before,” Prosser said.

He said the federal government is willing to allow for certain property acquisition in the building of a highway even before the final approval for the highway project is made.

That model is one the city is trying now to push for buyouts to make way for a levee.

Cedar Rapids diverts a part of its arriving temporary flood protection system to Fargo; ‘We don’t have a crisis today and they do’

In City Hall, Floods on March 24, 2009 at 3:28 pm

The city of Cedar Rapids had signed the contract, made the order and expected an initial delivery Tuesday of a temporary flood control system called Hesco “Concertainers.” The Conertainers are lined metal baskets, which can be deployed and filled with sand at times of high water.

Instead, the city agreed with the manufacturer to divert Cedar Rapids’ supply of Hesco baskets to Fargo, N.D., which is now being confronted by a major flood of the Red River of the North.
Craig Hanson, Cedar Rapids’ public works maintenance manager, says it was an easy call and the neighborly thing to do.

Hanson said Fargo currently is at major flood stage and is facing a river that may reach a record flood level. Meanwhile, the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids is flowing at a level of about five feet, far below any flooding threat for now.

“The right answer is to be neighborly and to help another city in need,” Hanson said. “We don’t have a crisis today and they do.”

Hanson said the Cedar Rapids sentiment was little different on June 14, 2008, the day after the Cedar River crested at record flood stage in Cedar Rapids, when the city still was able to send 50,000 to 70,000 sandbags to Iowa City to help against flooding there.

In turn, the city of Cedar Rapids has received much support from outside in coming to grips with its flood disaster, he said.

The city has purchased two different systems to provide the city with some temporary flood protection should the Cedar River act up again.

In addition to the Hesco baskets, the city also has purchased a product called a tiger dam, which are bladders that get filled with water to add height to the existing levee system.

The tiger dams arrived last week.

The city’s plan is to use tiger dams to protect the Time Check area and the Hesco baskets to protect downtown and Czech Village areas should flooding threaten the city again.

The temporary systems give the city an additional two feet of protection, raising the protection to 24 feet or four feet above what had been the record flood in Cedar Rapids until last year. In June 2008, the river climbed to 31.12 feet.

State’s disaster chief says of local frustration: flood victims want to be first for funds while federal agencies rush to be last to hand it out

In City Hall, Floods on March 23, 2009 at 9:20 pm

The world inside the City Council chambers often finds residents frustrated and critical of what they say are flaws in the city’s flood-recovery effort.

But there is a world outside of those council meetings as the top dog at the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division reminded people when he talked at last week’s council meeting and during a talk at the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

David Miller’s most striking point was this: That there is a rush by local communities and by every flood-affected individual in those communities to be first in to obtain disaster relief. At the same time, the federal agencies with most of the money to spend on disaster relief are rushing as hard as they can to be the last one in.

“It’s a race to see who is last,” Miller said of the federal government.

The Homeland Security chief’s point was that federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing & Urban Development all want to make sure they aren’t paying money before someone else is. What has private insurance paid? What did SBA pay that FEMA doesn’t have to pay?

It is for this reason that the federal government is so interested in “duplication of benefits,” Miller said.

That means, he said, that the federal government will always be checking, if not upfront, then along the way to make sure it is not paying benefits someone else has, too.

Miller reminded people, too, what FEMA representatives said from the get-go: that disaster-relief programs are not intended to “make people whole.” The programs, he said, aren’t an insurance policy. They’re designed to pick you off the ground.

In 1993 when floods hit Iowa hard, the state of Iowa sustained $163 million in damage to public buildings and infrastructure. In 2008, the damage at the current tally is $1.18 billion.

“This disaster is huge,” Miller said. By his count, the 2008 hit to public assets ranks fourth in the nation’s history.

Complicating disaster relief, he went on, is “the problem of cash flow.” The federal government prefers to pay as the work is done; the big check isn’t in the mail first, Miller said.

“If you want to know why people are upset, that’s it,” he said.

And Miller said local cities and counties can be forced to return money if they don’t “mix and match” federal funds correctly, making sure that they are following rules on environmental protection, lead-paint, historical review and more.

What has become a cliché, he said, is, nonetheless, true: “Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.”

In Iowa after the 1993 floods, he said it took communities five years to recovery from flooding and nine years to put new flood-protection systems in place.

Miller advised cities like Cedar Rapids to get moving on its small public facilities projects, which are defined as those in which there was less than $60,900 damage. FEMA will pay most of the cost of those repairs upfront, he said. Small projects, he said, can get the federal dollars flowing into a community.

For now, the city of Cedar Rapids has submitted 51 small flood-damage projects to FEMA and 146 large ones.

To date, too, he said FEMA has approved $271.5 million in repairs for Cedar Rapids public projects, with FEMA slated to pay 90 percent of the cost and the state of Iowa, 10 percent. To date, less than 10 percent of those funds have arrived, the state’s Miller said.

Miller noted that the state of Iowa has needed to create a new entity, the Rebuild Iowa Office, to help the state get a grip on the 2008 disasters. The state, he said, did not have adequate staff numbers or expertise to do the job along.

“At the state, we hired consultants,” Miller said.

Excavator at the ready to tear apart First Street SE for new federal courthouse; official groundbreaking ceremony set for April 25

In federal courthouse, GSA on March 23, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Make sure you get one last quick look at First Street SE. It is set to change forever and in a historic way this week.

According to U.S. General Services Administration project manager Jim Snedegar, local contractor Ryan Cos. US Inc. is mobilizing forces this week to start preliminary site work for the new $140-plus-million federal courthouse.

That work will include the removal of First Street SE between Seventh and Eighth avenues SE.

An excavator is positioned at the site for the digging to begin.

The new courthouse will go up between the Cedar River and Second Street SE and between Seventh and Eighth avenues SE. It will sit perpendicular to the river and face downtown. And those driving First Street SE toward it will be driving at the middle of the new building.

Long-in-coming, the courthouse landed a special $182-million congressional appropriation in early fall to finally clear the way for construction. Flood damage to the existing courthouse at 101 First St. SE helped make the case for getting started on the new one. The eight-story building is expected to open in the fall of 2012.

A second crew has been at the construction site for the last week or so continuing subsurface explorations in advance of construction, the GSA’s Snedegar said.

The city really is getting a new federal courthouse. The official groundbreaking ceremony is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, April 25.

Victorious arrival of federal tax credits hasn’t brought new affordable replacement housing; economy, neighbors’ distaste, iffy sites may factor in

In City Hall on March 22, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Last fall the City Council and state policymakers billed the arrival in Iowa of a significant new commitment of federal affordable-housing tax credits as a victory for disaster relief.

To date, more than nine months after Cedar Rapids’ 2008 flood disaster, no part of the new pot of tax credits has done anything to bring more affordable housing to Cedar Rapids to replace affordable housing lost to the flood.

Last week in an interview with Iowa Finance Authority officials, though, they assured that tax-credit projects will be forthcoming despite a downturn in the national economy.

Projects are “taking a little longer,” Dave Vaske, IFA’s tax-credit manager, said last week.

But Vaske pointed out that in the best of economic climates it typically can take nine months between the IFA’s award of tax credits for a developer’s project and the actual start of construction.

In recent months, the city’s Replacement Housing Task Force has recommended and Cedar Rapids City Council has voted to provide City Hall financial incentives to five different developers — all out-of-towners experienced in the regulation-heavy tax-credit program — and their tax-credit-financed proposals.

The one of the five projects most likely to get moving in the foreseeable future is the renovation of The Roosevelt, the former downtown hotel-turned apartment complex that is now flood-damaged and empty. Sherman Associates Inc. of Minneapolis said recently that work could begin as soon as April.

In December, the IFA awarded $598,525 to Sherman Associates to acquire and renovate The Roosevelt, and the IFA also awarded $725,464 in tax credits to MetroPlains LLC, St. Paul, Minn., for the construction of Cedar View Apartments, a proposed 45-unit senior-living complex at 1100 O Ave. NW. Cedar View, though, has run into neighborhood opposition and some questions from the City Planning Commission.

In a third project, Sherman Associates has withdrawn plans to build apartments and town houses on a 6-acre site that the city’s Ellis Golf Course formerly used as a practice chipping area. Neighborhood opposition was too organized and strong.

The developers of two other projects — Des Moines developer Jack Hatch’s plans for 96 apartments in the Oak Hill Neighborhood, and the plans of EverGreen Real Estate Development Corp., Prior Lake, Minn., for 90 town homes off Williams Boulevard SW — have yet to obtain approval from the Iowa Finance Authority for tax credits. Hatch’s plans, though, are not expected to see neighborhood opposition, and the EverGreen plan has won backing from the City Planning Commission despite neighbor opposition.

The IFA’s award of tax credits is just a step, and the IFA’s Vaske noted last week that the developer has a tougher job now to put together the entire financing package for a development because the market for tax credits is not what it had been just a couple years ago.

In recent years, he noted, it had been possible for a developer to find the purchaser of tax credits to provide 90 percent of the value of the tax credits to a project in return for the full value of the credits being applied to the investor’s tax liability over 10 years.

Now, the developer may get just 70 percent of the value of the tax credit to apply to a project.

As a result, the developer has to work harder to find other money to make the financing of a project work, the IFA’s Vaske said.

Nonetheless, the core of the financing of these proposed affordable-housing projects comes from the federal government’s tax-credit program. The idea is that the investor contributes money upfront and quality affordable housing gets built in exchange for forgiving the investor some of his tax liability. By getting the investor’s money upfront, the developer can build with limited debt and so can keep rents so they meet federal income guidelines. Arguably, too, developer can build better-quality buildings.

The IFA’s Vaske said the state agency is “hearing some optimism out there” despite the fact that pricing for the tax credits has dropped in the current economic climate.

Both local banks and local corporate investors are expressing interest in some of these tax-credit projects, he said.

The IFA, Vaske added, also is paying particular attention to the recent and sprawling federal stimulus bill to see if there is money in it that can be applied to tax-credit projects to help fill some financing gaps.

“We’ll see if it’s a way to help those projects come about,” he said.

At the end of the day, developers off these projects will often face a wrestling match with neighbors because the name of the tax credits is “low-income housing tax credits.”

In an assortment of public meetings over the last several months, each of the developers proposing projects in Cedar Rapids has argued that their tenants are people with jobs. In fact, a new term has surfaced here in the last year — “work force housing.”

At a recent City Planning Commission meeting, a local Realtor noted those who live in 90 percent of the metro area’s apartments can meet income guidelines for the new apartment projects being proposed. One opposing neighbor, though, noted that she really didn’t want those people living nearby.

At the same time, proposed developments can be badly placed and unfair to existing neighbors and the wider community. Not every opposition emanating from neighbors ranks as a NIMBY — Not in My Back Yard.

Bike racks are turning up on city buses here: Are Cedar Rapids bicyclists and local bus riders the same people?

In City Hall on March 21, 2009 at 9:19 pm

It seems so Seattle or Madison or Ann Arbor or Iowa City.

By May 1, the city of Cedar Rapids will have installed bicycle racks on the front ends of 27 of the city’s new and newer buses.

Some of the racks are in place now, though Brad DeBrower, the city’s transit manager, reports that no bicycle enthusiast or bus regular has yet inquired about them. He is planning a public service announcement once most of the racks are in place.

Almost to a person on the city’s nine-member City Council is a desire to make the city more welcoming to bicyclists, both those who are out for a ride and those who want to use a bicycle to commute to work.

Even now, the city is attempting to become the state’s only bicycle-friendly community, a status bestowed on a city by the League of American Bicyclists. Bike racks on buses are part of trying to get there. Places like Madison, Wis., and Eugene, Ore., and Ann Arbor, Mich., are bicycle-friendly places.

The City Council also has been insisting that major street projects in the city take into consideration bicyclists and pedestrians, which can mean wider-than-normal sidewalks along major streets.

As for the bicycle racks on city buses, the idea is a captivating one. For instance, the rack-on-bus amenity would allow someone to ride a bike to the bus stop, place the bicycle on the bus bike rack and ride the bus to work. Once the work day is over, the bicyclist then could peddle home.

It remains to be seen, though, if the marriage of the bicycle and the city bus actually works in Cedar Rapids. Are the people who ride bicycles here the same people who ride the bus?

Look for council member Tom Podzimek — a proponent of public transit and bicycles — to have a bicycle hanging off a bus some time soon.

Mayoral prospect Hinzman nudges toward a decision to take on Corbett and, perhaps, others

In Gary Hinzman, Ron Corbett on March 21, 2009 at 11:55 am

Gary Hinzman, the director of the Sixth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services and a former Cedar Rapids police chief, first surfaced publicly as a possible mayoral candidate, thanks to Ron Corbett, who now has announced his candidacy for the job.

In January, Corbett or Corbett backers conducted a phone survey to see which possible candidates might best him in a run for mayor. The five names in the survey were those of Corbett, Scott Olson, a local Realtor who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2005, council members Brian Fagan and Monica Vernon, and Hinzman.

Last week, Hinzman took a step closer to showing his cards when his new Web site appeared — “Gary Hinzman for Mayor, A Voice for All People, A Force for Positive Change.” He said the Web site is “under construction.”

By week’s end, Hinzman had issued a statement on “ethics” to his 250 employees, alerting them to his possible mayoral run and to his commitment, should he run, to following state rules required of a public employee running for public elective office.

In short, such a run for mayor, he tells his employees, will require him to separate any political activities from the official business of correctional services department.

The rule, he tells them, is “simple:” “Government time, resources or equipment cannot be used for political purposes. This includes our e-mail system.”

He adds that no employee is expected to do anything in the way of offering support or mouthing political comments to him.

And he notes that he has not made any final decision to run for mayor.

“This is becoming more likely,” he says of a run for mayor. “But I have not yet made an announcement and I am still considering some key factors.”

Incumbent Mayor Kay Halloran has said she will make a decision about seeking reelection later this spring.