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

Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

City readies to take down 71 more flood-damaged homes, but not before councilman Wieneke questions costly caution over asbestos

In City Hall, Floods on May 29, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Seventy down, the next 71 or so at the ready, 1,150 or so to go.

The City Council this week gave the go-ahead to demolish 71 more flood-damaged properties.

The demolition of a first group of 70 properties, most of which were homes, was completed at the end of April.

This next group of properties is part of a group of homes tagged with red placards in the city’s worst-to-best system of purple, red, yellow and green placards. The purple-placarded homes came down first.

The decision this week to go ahead with 71 or so more homes did not come with some disagreement.

Council member Chuck Wieneke took great exception to the city’s plan to – as it did with the purple-placarded homes – treat the next 71 homes as too unsafe to enter. With that status, the city plan is that the properties can’t be checked for asbestos and the asbestos, if found, can’t be removed before demolition.

As a result, the entire property is considered to be asbestos-containing material, which requires special handling and increased costs during demolition.

Wieneke said he had “real heartburn” with the idea that the city would be paying what he said would be five times the regular demolition cost because of the decision about asbestos. He estimated the cost to demolish each house as it it had asbestos at $35,000 to $37,000.

He noted that many of the red-placarded houses have been entered by the homeowners with the assistance of city staff since the flood, and he didn’t see why city staff couldn’t do the same now to identify and mitigate any asbestos.

Wieneke said he’d be willing to walk into the homes.

City Manager Jim Prosser and Tim Manz, the city’s interim manager of code enforcement, countered, telling Wieneke that the city’s latest round of inspections found these 71 properties to be the worst of what is left standing and too unsafe to enter.

Manz said the structural instability of the 71 properties was similar to the purple-placarded homes that have now been demolished.

He noted that the city has another 140 homes that it has received permission from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take down, and he said that group of homes likely will allow for asbestos assessment and removal before demolition.

Council member Justin Shields said it was best to err on the side of safety. Manz assured council member Tom Podzimek that the owners were being notified before the demolitions.

Bids for the work must be submitted to the city by 11 a.m. June 11.

The contract calls for an estimated 71 structures to be down by Sept. 25.

The city continues to await additional federal Community Development Block Grant funds, which it plans to use to pay for buyouts and demolitions of most of the 1,300 flood-damaged homes and other structures it expects to buy out.

FEMA has agreed to pay for demolitions of a few hundred of the worst-damaged properties.

A neighborhood leader with a thought on the Ice Arena faces the fact that some things are done deals

In City Hall on May 29, 2009 at 7:41 am

Frank, some things at City Hall probably are kind of done deals.

Frank King, president of Northwest Neighbors, has opinions and insights, which he often shares with the City Council at their Wednesday evening meetings.

Thursday afternoon, King couldn’t have been more disappointed.

The evening before, King told the council, during its public comment session, that he had some thoughts about the proposed deal to amend the city’s Ice Arena lease with the RoughRiders junior league hockey team.

The issue of the Ice Arena lease was on the council’s consent agenda, which is the place for items the council considers routine and not in need of discussion.

Members of the council, though, assured King that the agenda item – which changed the ownership name on the RoughRiders lease with the city to reflect a change in the team’s owners – had nothing to do with proposed amendments to the lease terms. King was told that the lease amendment would be addressed by the council at an upcoming meeting, which would be a better time for King to weigh in on matters.

By Thursday, King says he had come to see it was, in reality, all a done deal.

On Thursday morning, the new owners – three couples including team coach Mark Carlson and his wife – held a news conference at the city’s Ice Arena to officially announce the purchase of the team from a Chicago group.

The Thursday news conference was announced via City Hall press release to introduce.

By Thursday evening, TV news was awash with talk of new Jumbotrons and a new era in RoughRiders hockey. The Gazette’s sports section had been talking about it for a few days.

It all started late last week when the city’s Five Seasons Facilities Commission agreed to lease modifications with the team’s new owners, though the commission’s decision must be approved by the council.

The proposed lease changes reduce the team’s rent for the Ice Arena and give the team a 10-percent cut in concession revenue in exchange for the team’s immediate investment in arena improvements. Those include a new scoreboard and media screens.

What with the City Hall news release and the Thursday morning news conference, King says he finds it hard to imagine that the council now will raise any questions about the proposed lease amendments.

So he wishes he would have had his say Wednesday evening.

His wish, too, is that the council wouldn’t have given him the impression that its action Wednesday night was of little consequence and that he should save his thoughts and any thunder for the next time.

King said that, yes, he wouldn’t have minded seeing the new hockey team owners at the Wednesday evening council meeting. They could have introduced themselves to the council before it agreed to put the new owners’ names on the city lease that runs through 2020. King says the new owners also could have used the public meeting to explain to council members and the public what their plans were and why they needed to pay less rent at the arena.

King doesn’t think the deal is good enough for the city.

At the end of the day, the council does depend on the Five Seasons Facilities Commission to do much of the work related to the city’s facilities. The commission, which holds public meetings that few if any citizens attend, has done that with the Ice Arena lease.

Patrick DePalma, the commission’s chairman, said the new owners and the proposed changes in the lease help assure the city keeps a hockey team and keeps the principal tenant of the city’s ice arena. DePalma said lower rent and sharing some concession revenue is a good trade off to get the team to invest now in some arena improvements.

Building new or renovating flood-damaged public buildings? Linn’s Barron weighs in on the S word — sustainability

In City Hall, Linn County government on May 28, 2009 at 8:23 am

Advocates for returning city government to the flood-damaged and iconic Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island might want to talk to Lu Barron, chairwoman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors.

On June 23, the city of Cedar Rapids will begin the first of a series of open houses in what surely will be a well-attended public participation process to help the City Council decide the future of the city’s flood-damaged buildings.

Those buildings include the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall, library, Public Works Building and the existing federal courthouse, which the city is slated to take control of once the new federal courthouse opens in the fall of 2012.

One word that will be tossed around as much as any is “sustainability.” In this context, sustainability is the notion that the city should renovate or build new with an eye to energy efficiency and other considerations that help lower a building’s operating costs over time.

It’s not been uncommon for the city officials and City Council members to toss the word “sustainability” around over the last year in a way that leaves the impression that building new buildings is the best way to achieve sustainability.

Tell that to Linn County’s Lu Barron.

In a talk with The Gazette editorial board this week, Barron defended the county’s decisions to withdrawn from a joint public participation process with the city and to return to the county’s flood-damaged Administrative Office Building on First Street SW across from the Penford Products plant.

Barron said the county needed to move more quickly than the city in making decisions about the county’s flood-damaged buildings, and she said it made fiscal sense to return to the existing building rather than building something new.

Then she mentioned the S word.

“One of the most sustainable things you can do is to use an existing building,” Barron said.

She said planned renovations to the county’s Administrative Office Building, which include adding a floor to the building, will add 30, 40 or more years to the life of the structure at, perhaps, half the cost of building a new building.

“I think taxpayers want that out of us,” she said.

Barron acknowledged that prior supervisors some years ago purchased land along the Cedar River near the current city police station with an eye to constructing a new county building and abandoning the Administrative Office Building. It makes financial sense now to stay put and remodel the existing building, Barron said.

To be sure, the county’s Administrative Office Building, which Barron said sits outside the 500-year floodplain, has less flood damage than the city’s Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island.

The county, though, has returned to the courthouse and jail on the island.

Council changes name on Ice Arena lease to clear way for new RoughRiders owners; proposed lease amendments will be considered later that trade lower rent for arena improvements

In Cedar Rapids Ice Arena on May 27, 2009 at 5:00 pm

In routine fashion, the City Council last night reassigned its Ice Arena rental lease to a new owner of the RoughRiders junior hockey league team.

Newco Riders LLC – a six-member ownership group which consists of three couples including RoughRiders head coach Mark Carlson and his wife – is purchasing the team from Mercantile Capital Partners of Chicago.

The new owners have scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. today at the Ice Arena to formally announce the purchase of the team.

The RoughRiders have made the city’s Ice Arena home for 10 seasons now.

Last night’s council resolution pointed out that the new owners will continue to be subject to Paragraph 27 of the existing Ice Arena lease, which does not relieve new owners of the existing lease’s obligations. The lease runs through April 2020.

The city’s Five Seasons Facilities Commission has agreed with the new owners to amend the existing lease in a way that reduces annual rent and gives the team 10 percent of the concession revenue in exchange for the owners’ investment in a new scoreboard and media screens and other capital improvements.

Patrick DePalma, chairman of the commission, said Wednesday that the commission has signed a non-binding letter of intent with the new owners to amend the existing lease. The City Council must approve the amendments after a public hearing at a later meeting, he noted.

DePalma said the RoughRiders currently pay about $155,000 a year in rent for use of the arena, but get none of the facility’s concession revenue.

DePalma said the proposed amended lease would reduce the rent to $90,000 a year for five years before it begins to increase. The lease proposal also gives the hockey team 10 percent of the hockey arena concession revenue. DePalma estimated that 10 percent is about $60,000 a year. The city currently receives about $240,000 a year in concession revenue, which is 40 percent of a total of about $600,000. The new owners’ share will come out of the city’s portion.

In exchange, the new owners have agreed to make immediate improvements to the city arena, including installing a new scoreboard and media screens.

DePalma said the immediate infusion of money by the new owners should help increase attendance, which has declined in recent years.

DePalma called the proposed lease amendment “fair and balanced.” It keeps the RoughRiders in the arena until 2020 and brings in new owners who DePalma said have “a passion” for the game and the team.

Steam committee suggests splitting $21 million this way: $8 million for five of eight big users; $8 million for little users; and $5 million to lower bills

In City Hall, Floods on May 26, 2009 at 6:36 pm

The City Council this week will decide how it wants to dispense $21 million in federal and state dollars to help users of the downtown steam system convert to their own replacement systems.

A city review team — which includes city staff members, downtown business representatives, state leaders and large and small steam customers — is proposing a reimbursement program that devotes $8 million of the $21 million in aid for large customers, $8 million for smaller customers and $5 million to help “buy down” the cost of higher steam bills.

Of the $5 million, 70 percent will go to big users, though they represented 86 percent of overall steam usage from Alliant Energy’s flood-wrecked Sixth Street Generating Station, according to a memo to the City Council.

The plant, which had provided cheap steam for eight large customers and about 200 smaller ones, won’t be rebuilt because of cost. One plan to try to find federal and state money to rebuild the plant as it was — as a coal plant — was nixed by the City Council as spending too much public money on an old plant and an old technology.

According to this week’s council memo, the assumption is that a portion of the $8 million designated for the large customers — the Quaker and Cargill plants next to downtown are among the eight — won’t go to customers Coe College and the two hospitals because it is anticipated they will receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

City hires OPN Architects for $400,000 to help with open houses to determine future of flood-damaged city buildings; county, schools dropped out of process

In City Hall, Floods on May 26, 2009 at 5:57 pm

The much-anticipated series of public open houses will start June 23 to help the city determine the future of flood-damaged city buildings.
And Wednesday evening, the City Council hired OPN Architects Inc. of Cedar Rapids for $400,000 to help lead the several-month process.

OPN not only will help conduct the public open houses, but the firm also will provide design and planning options and an analysis of the costs involved in renovating buildings or building new ones.

OPN’s contract runs from May 28 through Oct. 31 and may be renewed in 60-day increments.

Among the key flood-damaged buildings under discussion will be the library, the Paramount Theatre, the Ground Transportation Center bus depot, the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall, the Public Works Building and the existing federal courthouse, which the city is scheduled to assume ownership of once the new federal courthouse opens in the fall of 2012.

Sufficient damage was done to the library that it will be rebuilt not renovated, and the city’s library board already has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to allow the city to rebuild the library on a different site.

The council also will be interested in hearing about proposals to build a new City Hall, called a community services center, a new Public Safety Training Center and a new community operations center, which would house city departments like fleet maintenance, streets and solid waste.

Only city government is left to participate in the lengthy process to get public input on facilities.

Some months ago, both Linn County government and the Cedar Rapids school district were involved in the facilities process when the idea was that the differing jurisdictions might “co-locate” in a shared facility.
The county dropped out a few months ago, saying they wanted to move faster than the city. The school district dropped out this month.

Flood-recovery milestone reached: All 70 purple-placarded properties now demolished and off to the dump

In City Hall, Floods on May 22, 2009 at 11:32 am

One flood-recovery landmark has been reached.

All 70 of the worst-damaged properties – the ones with purple placards signifying they were too unsafe to enter – have now all been demolished, City Hall reports.

The last of the properties, most of which were homes, came down at the end of April.

The demolition effort took some months to start after a couple false starts over bidding.

Some of the job was done by winter, when it then had to take a break because water used to control possible asbestos dust from the properties would have frozen. The properties were so unsafe that crews couldn’t enter to assess asbestos materials inside. As a result, all the demolition debris had to be treated as asbestos-containing material.

In recent months, city officials successfully lobbied the Federal Emergency Management Agency to have the agency pay for the demolition of another 200 or 300 or so homes. Those are the ones, also considered too unsafe to enter, with red placards in the city’s best-to-worst system of green, yellow, red and purple placards.

Those demolitions are expected to begin in July once paperwork requirements are satisfied, city officials said this week.

In total, the city estimates it may buy out and demolish 1,300 homes and other properties at a total cost of $175 million.

Much of the buyout money will come from federal Community Development Block Grant funds, and the city is expecting word any time from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development of the next large release of CDBG disaster money.

In the meantime, the city has set up a buyout assessment system and is in the process of interviewing those wanting a buyout whose homes qualify.

Past council candidate Bates back with profanity-tainted yelling; but a criminal charge from an earlier episode in September was dismissed

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Greg Graham on May 21, 2009 at 11:37 am

One of the last times Robert Bates — a City Council candidate in 2005 who is open about his criminal and prison past — showed up at a City Council meeting, he ended up getting arrested.

That was in early September, and the misdemeanor criminal charge of disorderly conduct for disturbing a lawful meeting was the result of Bates’ profanity-laced and yelling-tainted performance during the council’s public comment period.

Turns out, Bates, who runs a traveling concession business, contested the charge and beat it in February.

On Wednesday, he was back at the City Council podium with a new version of public comment that featured profanity, a loud voice, personal attacks and a short refusal to leave the microphone when the council’s 5-minute time limit had been reached.

Council member Brian Fagan, the council’s mayor pro tem, asked Bates to moderate his comments twice, and then Fagan had to insist that Bates leave the microphone.

By then, Police Chief Greg Graham had moved to the side of the room to accompany Bates outside.

Bates asked if he was getting arrested again, to which Graham did not respond.

In his presentation, Bates once again brought up a decade-old dispute with the Linn County Sheriff and the Police Department. Bates also is a flood victim, and he talked, too, about what was not being done for flood victims.

Bates also had a notable outburst in the council chambers in the fall of 2007 when he sought to run for City Council a second time. However, a citizen successfully challenged some signatures on his nominating petitions and, as a result, he did not have enough signatures to qualify to run.

On Thursday, Bates said he and Chief Graham talked for about 15 minutes outside the City Council meeting on Wednesday evening in a discussion that he said did not result in any criminal charge.

He said he is just “standing up for our American rights” of free speech to make the point of how he and other flood victims feel.

He said he is planning a new run for City Council this year.

City Council ‘steam team’ leader Vernon says work underway to create an equitable way to dispense $21 million in steam conversion funds

In Alliant Energy, City Hall, Monica Vernon on May 21, 2009 at 9:41 am

City Council member Monica Vernon, the City Council’s “steam team” chief, reports that the city’s Pat Ball, utilities director, and Mike Sable, a special assistant to the city manager, are helping to work up an approach to dispense $21 million in state funds to help those in the downtown steam network convert to their own systems.

ernon said the effort involves devising an “equitable” way to hand out the funds. She said a proposal may be coming in front of the council as soon as next week.

The money consists of $5 million in state I-JOBS funds and $16 million in money set aside by the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

The City Council brought absolute clarity to the lingering downtown steam issue two weeks ago when the council voted unanimously not to allow public funds to be used to rebuild Alliant Energy’s flood-destroyed Sixth Street Generating Plant as a coal plant.

There had been a push to find federal and state money to rebuild the Alliant plant –which provided low-cost steam power to the key industries Quaker and Cargill, the two hospitals, Coe College and the downtown and near downtown — as a coal plant. Alliant, a private entity, cannot directly receive public money, and so it would have had to be allocated to the City Council for use.

The council, though, concluded that burning coal and environmental issues associated with it represented the past, not the future. Council members said a new era of taxing emissions from coal plants will make mean that coal may not be as much of a bargain as some now think it is.