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City Council aspires to bigger league; was split with smaller-ball Linn County inevitable?

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields, Linn County government on February 22, 2009 at 11:03 am

On a 3-2 vote, the Linn County Board of Supervisors has decided not to study to see if it makes sense to join forces with the Cedar Rapids City Council in a new public administration building, which is being called a Community Services Center.

Even Supervisor Linda Langston, who was one of two on the short end of the vote, said she’d only continue to participate with the city in a public planning process about a building on two conditions: if the city shortened the length of the process and if the city treated the county nicer, as a “full partner.”

Ben Rogers, one of two new supervisors and the youngest of the five, was alone in advocating that the planning process could do nothing but help no matter what it came to conclude. Rogers noted, too, that joining forces with the city didn’t necessarily mean building new buildings. It could mean renovating existing ones, he said.

As much as anything, the supervisor drama on Friday served as a reminder that the city of Cedar Rapids and Linn County are two entirely different animals. They always have been.

Cedar Rapids and its City Hall are big entities with a complicated set of responsibilities: water, waste water, airport, cultural attractions and entertainment and sports venues for starters.

There’s also a downtown, which community leaders ranging far beyond City Hall say is vital to the future vitality of Cedar Rapids and to the city’s ability to keep and attract employers and employees.

Most importantly, Cedar Rapids is what community leaders in and out of City Hall never tire of reminding people of: It is the industrial and commercial economic “engine” for the city, county and region.

City Hall plays a central role in all of that as it oversees and regulates development in the city.

Linn County doesn’t.

The differences could no more clearly have been drawn between Wednesday evening’s City Council meeting and Friday’s late-morning meeting of the county supervisors.

On Wednesday evening, the City Council enthusiastically endorsed moving ahead on a public participation process to see if it makes sense to build a new Community Services Center of some kind that city, county and school district might somehow share.

Council members Brian Fagan and Justin Shields talked passionately about the city’s need to challenge the notion that it was good enough to just restore a damaged city to the way it had been before the flood.

“Sometimes out of ashes you want to rise from those ashes and build something better than what was there before,” Shields said.

 “I think this is a unique opportunity … that the city, county and school districts have to really come together and think of all the things that we do and they do and see if we can’t come up some plan that will put those facilities together and make them better than they ever were, and look to the future that we’re building for the next 50 to 100 years,” Shields said.

Fagan put the matter in a larger framework. He said the city was doing nothing short of challenging what he said was the conventional approach that the Federal Emergency Management Agency tries to insist on. Fagan said FEMA wants jurisdictions to rebuild flood-damaged buildings as they were, while he said he wants to rebuild better than before.

His hope, he said, was that the Obama administration might share his view of how a city should come back after a flood.

“This is an opportunity for us again to be an example for the country in terms of how we rebuild,” Fagan said.

And council member Tom Podzimek wasn’t even at the meeting. He was sick. Podzimek is most insistent of the need for council members to look to the long term and to measure things like a building’s energy efficiency, its environmental impact and its life-cycle costs before making decisions about building or renovating.

Friday morning, over at the Linn County Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Brent Oleson, the new representative on the board from Marion, seemed to state the case for the supervisor majority best.

He said the supervisors didn’t want any kind of new building in which they shared a board room or council chambers with anyone else. The county needs its own, he said.

Oleson revealed  that  Podzimek had called him Thursday evening to talk about the need for more information before moving ahead.

Oelson, though, rejected the Podzimek notion, and the Fagan one for that matter.

“I’m not going to be paralyzed,” Oelson said about the need to get more facts. He said he had plenty of facts.

The county’s Administrative Office Building can live on another 70 or more years, he said. Let’s fix it, he said, and move back in.

Oleson said it was time to separate needs from wants.

Would I want a “greener” building that would be the pride of all of Iowa? Maybe, he said.

“But it’s not feasible now,” he concluded.

Supervisors Lu Barron and Jim Houser were quick to note the existing building can be made more “green.”

Barron was the swing vote on this, and she stuck with the majority in withdrawing from any co-location discussions with the city in a new Community Services Center.

After all, she noted, the public participation process calls for the hiring of two consultants to help lead the process over six or more months. Does the county want to share in those costs? she wondered.

Even Supervisor Langston questioned the need for consultants from out of state, hinting that’s what City Hall had in mind.

The city has had two consultants, national consultant Camp Dresser & McKee and local consultant Howard R. Green, leading months of behind-the-scenes discussions on the co-location idea to date.

In the longer view, this parting of the ways between the supervisors and City Hall isn’t really surprising.

It was only just a few years ago, in the early 2000s, that now-likely mayoral candidate Ron Corbett, then president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, worked to get city and county to merge some of their operations. He threw in the towel on it.

Instead, the city changed its government to a one with a professional city manager and a part-time council, while the county enlarged its government to five supervisors without a professional manager.

On Friday, Les Beck, the county’s chief planner, encouraged the supervisors to stay in the planning process on co-location of facilities. Beck said planning led to “informed decisonmaking,” a concept which Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser talks a lot about. Planners talk that way.

The planning process, though, would have required spending some funds on it and, maybe, a lot of money down the road on new facilities, and the county opted out.

This is a city election year. Six of nine council members face re-election, including the mayor.

What happened between the county and city last week, no doubt, will help shape the election debate with at least three questions:

Do voters want the city to be better than before? How much planning does that require? And just where does a new public building fit on the priority list?


Council enthused about public process for new ‘Community Services Center,’ but would council avoid a citizen vote to get it built?

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields on February 19, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Wednesday night, the City Council launched a six-to-ninth-month public participation process aimed to help the city see if it should build what essentially would be a new city hall.

The flood-damaged Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island would serve other functions if a new building is built.

The city is calling the new building a Community Services Center, and the concept is for the city, county and school district to participate in the public input process to see if it might make sense for the three entities to co-locate services in a services center building or on a campus.

All three have had flood damage to their central offices, and all three have been meeting for months to ready for the public participation process.

At the Wednesday night council meeting, council members Justin Shields, Brian Fagan and Monica Vernon voiced strong support for the public process, while Shields and Fagan talked about wanting the city’s future to be better than its past and how a new building might be a way to accomplish that.

At the same time, Fagan and City Manager Jim Prosser both made reference to an ongoing council lobbying effort that might need to succeed if a new City Hall/Community Services Center is ever built.

Those initiatives address how the city might pay to build a new building.

One of the initiatives on the council’s lobbying priority list would change state law to allow the city to use bond debt to pay to build a new City Hall/Community Services Center without holding a citizen vote. Such a vote is required now.

Some months ago, the city’s Statehouse lobbyist, former state legislator Larry Murphy, told the council that a law change to allow the city to forego a citizen vote on bonding for a public building was the least likely of the city’s lobbying initiatives to gain favor among legislators.

It was hard to know what Fagan and Prosser meant when they made passing reference to lobbying initiatives on Wednesday night. But after Wednesday’s meeting both noted that one of the initiatives they had in mind was acquiring the ability to forgo a bond referendum vote. Prosser recalled that lobbyist Murphy had doubts about a law change to permit that.

In the past, Prosser has said times of natural disaster might require such a change.

Fagan noted how difficult it would be if city, county and school district one day did decide to co-locate in a building or on a campus. Current state law might require each entity to go to voters separately to pass a bond vote, he said.

The city also is seeing if it’s possible to raise its debt ceiling or to see if the state might establish a bonding pool to help finance public buildings hit by disaster.

The council also is talking about an idea of a new Community Safety Training Center for police and firefighter training and a Community Operations Center, which might involve a reconfiguration of the city’s Public Works Facility at 1201 Sixth St. SW.

City Hall critic Carol Martin admits opposing local-option tax is “tricky”

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods on February 3, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Carol Martin, the best-known critic of City Council spending over many years now, is no longer a constant presence at City Council meetings. But she did show up at the noon on Tuesday to hear for herself the council case for a local-option sales tax.

Without pause, the council said the city needed the extra tax revenue to help meet hundreds of millions of dollars in unmet needs associated with flood recovery. Property taxes, the city’s principal revenue source, can’t carry a bigger load, and federal and state funds aren’t going to be enough, council members said.

Council members, too, asked residents to consider the 1-percent sales tax, not as a new imposition, but rather as another way for residents to give as they already have for flood recovery and for the good of the whole community.

“As a city, I do believe there is an obligation that we have to work with the community and to help our neighbors as we did during the flood — with dignity, determination and discipline,” council member Brian Fagan said.

It is an argument that Martin appreciates.

“It’s kind of a tricky situation because no one wants to have flood victims suffer any more,” Martin said a few hours after Tuesday’s noon meeting.

Nonetheless, by late Tuesday afternoon, she was already mobilizing her network of City Hall skeptics to oppose the March 3 vote on the 1-percent sales tax.

Martin said she feared that the sales tax revenue – between $18 million and $23 million a year, city officials estimate – would not get to flood victims, and in any event, she said the length of the taxing period – 5 years and 3 months – was too long.

Martin also noted layoffs in the city and she said it was a particularly tough time to impose a new tax. She said she might feel differently if she thought the city was watching its spending.

“But they keep spending money like it’s going out of style,” Martin said. “Show me how you’re being frugal with our money, especially now.”

Council sends city staff to the wood shed over buyout letter; Read the letter for yourself

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Tom Podzimek on January 31, 2009 at 12:08 pm

The City Council has gotten an earful in recent days from property owners apt to have their properties bought out in the future because they are will be in the way of the city’s proposed new flood protection system of levees and flood walls.

What got the phone ringing at City Hall was a letter — see it at these owners seeking signatures to allow permission for JCG Land Services Inc., of Nevada, Iowa, to enter on to their property.

To some homeowners, the letter was unclear and seemed to be seeking permission to allow some unknown company to invade a property to prepare for buyouts that the city has not yet committed to.

Jon Galvin, vice president of the Northwest Neighbors, fired off a letter to City Hall telling it to take care of first things first: Buy out the properties, and then worry about the rest.

Council members across the board acknowledged that the letter was less than artful, and council member Brian Fagan asked city staff to write a new, clearer one. There was the suggestion, too, that staff run a draft of such letters past a few citizens to see how the letter might be improved before launch.

Council member Tom Podzimek said the letter caused citizen headaches while a clearer letter would not have.

“This isn’t anything harmful,” Podzimek said of what the city is asking in the letter. The letter, he said, only makes it seem so.

The letter seeks to get permission from property owners so surveyors and geologists and others can walk on property to conduct tests needed to build a new flood system. Having to find a property owner – particularly when most of the properties are not inhabited – at the time the work is being conducted would add months to the work, city staff added.

Of the 750 or so parcels so far identified as ones slated for possible buyout in the future, 192 are in an area closest to the Cedar River that is proposed to become a greenway.

To date, 157 owners in the proposed greenway have signed buyout agreements with the city, 22 have declined and 13 have not been located.

Another 554 property owners likely will be subject to buyouts because they are in an area identified as a possible construction area for levees and  flood walls.

A third group of property owners also may have their homes bought out: Those are ones whose homes are beyond reasonable repair and are outside the proposed greenway or construction area.

As the city pursues federal money, the hope is that some will arrive to be used to buyout homes more quickly than had been thought, city officials have said. 


Much-fussed-over East Post Road bridge likely to include trail, sidewalk

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Jerry McGrane, Justin Shields, Kay Halloran, Monica Vernon on January 29, 2009 at 8:05 am

It has been a couple years – years.

That’s how long the City Council has gone around and around about trying to build a little bridge on East Post Road SE over Indian Creek.

Last night, in what is still not entirely clear, the council discussed the latest design of the bridge and, when it came up for air, council members said they broke, 5-4, to build a new two-lane bridge with a 14-foot-wide trail on the upstream side and a 6-foot-wide sidewalk on the downstream side.

The 5-4 vote was in favor of tentatively adding the sidewalk.

It was unclear exactly who was for what. But council members Brian Fagan, Jerry McGrane and Mayor Kay Halloran were clearly against the sidewalk, while council member Monica Vernon said the city doesn’t build bridges every day and so builds bridges for what might come in 30 or more years. All city bridges have walkways on both sides, so why not here? Vernon asked.

Few local projects have generated more citizen interest and more citizen cynicism of City Hall.

Originally, the city’s engineering staff and the city’s transportation consultants designed the bridge as a three-lane one with a middle-turn lane. The engineers said the turn lane was needed for people making turns on Cottage Grove Parkway SE just to the north of the bridge.

An outpouring of citizens, though, wanted no part of a third lane. They came to believe that a third lane, coupled with a wide trail on one side of the new bridge and sidewalk on the other, was all a ruse: City Hall’s real intent was to convert what was built into a four-lane thoroughfare as a prelude to widen all of the pretty, curvy, two-lane East Post Road SE into a four-lane road.

The engineers have vowed no such thing, but the fear lingers.

The new, pending design, which the council will apparently formally vote on in the weeks or months ahead, includes substantial, decorative barriers between the two-lane roadway and trail and sidewalk and also raises the trail a bit above the roadway so the road one day can’t be expanded on to the trail.

In last night’s discussion, the council kind of laughed at itself for yammering away about the bridge design for so long. Along the way, council members have developed something of an affection  for staff engineer Ken DeKeyser, who has drawn the short straw on the city’s engineering staff and has had to try to shepherd the project through the public and the council to reality.

“Let’s do it and get it done,” council member McGrane said last night.

Council member Justin Shields said the bridge was an example of the council’s commitment to building something attractive and building something using the approach of “complete.” That is an approach of building streets that takes into account vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians and aesthetics.

“I think it’s a beautiful bridge,” Shields said.

City Hall interest in replacing the bridge ramped up way back in 2002 after a flash flood on Indian Creek. Neighbors in the Sun Valley Neighborhood, which was flooded that year, pushed City Hall to look at any and all impediments to the flow of water that contributed to the flood. One thought was that the bridge itself could be improved to allow more water to flow under it.

Council caves on golf course debt; utilities, bus fares headed up; new vacuum trucks for leaf pickup; monthly downtown parking at 82 percent of pre-flood levels

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser on January 27, 2009 at 11:08 pm

The council’s annual budget work goes on.

It’s a different day, this flood-recovery era. All the numbers seem to be headed up.

Rates on the city’s package of four utilities -– water, waste water treatment/sanitary sewer, storm sewer and solid waste/recycling – are slated to go up 14 percent or $100 a year for the typical homeowner, Pat Ball, the city’s utilities director, proposed to the City Council last night.

Even the number of employees is climbing after years of cuts and after a major City Hall reorganization two years ago that sent some senior management talent packing. Some 30 new employees may be in the offing.

Among the most notable budget items last night had to do with the city’s golf operations.

In the year prior to the 2008 flood, there were few City Hall stories that garnered as much space in the news as one about the city’s Twin Pines Golf Course. The city had floated an idea to sell a piece of the place to raise money to fix it and make other golf course improvements. Golfers and park lovers were incensed, a City Hall task force was convened, and the city idea faded into a bottom drawer somewhere.

Even so, one City Hall position survived: the city golf operation would pay its way with golf fees as it always had done. It would get no general property-tax revenue to help balance its budget, no matter that it faced years of having to pay an annual debt bill in the range of $400,000 to cover the cost of improvements already made to the city’s Jones and Ellis courses.

Well, last night it was as if all of that debate never happened.

With little discussion, the City Council signaled that it will relieve the golf operation of its ongoing annual debt payments and pay those bills with general property taxes.

It was an easy switch of direction. After all, the golf operation’s entire budget was damaged what with the damage that the June flood did to the Jones Park Golf Course. Seventeen of the course’s 18 holes were destroyed, the clubhouse was flooded and the course was closed for the season. It will open this year, though to somewhat limited use, Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director, said last night.

Sina noted that the trend here and nationwide continues: Fewer people are playing golf. And Sina predicted that the current recession will keep more people away from the courses this year, too.

City Manager Jim Prosser said the debt taken on in recent years to modernize the Jones and Ellis golf courses was not bad planning. No one could have foreseen golf’s downward trend, he said.

In an effort to lure more golfers to the city courses, the new budget keeps city golf fees where they have been.

Council member Brian Fagan wondered if Prosser and Sina had any plans to present the council with a plan to privatize one or more of the courses. Some other cities have tried such a thing.

Prosser said the council would likely see some information about that, but he added that privatization can be an unwelcome concept in some corners. There were some chilling responses to the idea of privatizing the city’s downtown parking operation, an idea which was set aside when the flood hit last June.

The city’s parking operation, which historically has paid for itself with fees, won’t in the next budget year. The council has given monthly parkers a reduction in fares to encourage businesses to return to the flood-damaged downtown.

Prior to the June flood, the city had 3,422 monthly parkers. It now has about 2,800 or 82 percent of the pre-flood number. The downtown parking system is now at 60-percent capacity. Some 1,800 spaces are available, Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, reported.

Two other budget highlights from last night: City bus fares are headed up from $1 to $1.25 a ride for adults and from 50 cents to 60 cents for seniors.

Fares cover about 15 percent of the cost of operating the city bus system, the city’s Ball told the council last night. One idea to cut costs was to eliminate Saturday bus service, which Ball said has reduced ridership whose fares cover only 6 percent of the cost of the service.

Council members, though, said they wanted to keep the Saturday service and preserve the five jobs that Ball said would be lost without it. Brad DeBrower, the city’s transit chief, said the Saturday service provides between 1,200 and 1,300 rides each Saturday.

For now, too, the council has kept in the proposed budget the purchase of new vacuum trucks that will change the city’s fall leaf pickup program.

With the vacuum trucks, residents no longer will rake leaves into the street, but will rake leaves to the edge of the street where the city trucks would vacuum them up. Without the trucks, Ball said the city would require residents to put all their leaves in Yardy carts of paper bags.

Living legends might be among those in the hunt for Cedar Rapids mayor

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Gary Hinzman, Mayor Kay Halloran, Monica Vernon, Ron Corbett, Scott Olson on January 19, 2009 at 7:30 pm

It’s not easy getting your name affixed to a public building, especially if you have not given oodles to build the thing or you’re still alive.

Even so, two individuals mentioned in the last week as possible candidates in this year’s Cedar Rapids mayoral race — Ron Corbett and Gary Hinzman — both have managed to get their names on public buildings.

Corbett’s name is on the Corbett-Miller residential cottage at the Iowa Boy’s Training School at Eldora.

And Hinzman’s name is on the Gerald R. Hinzman Center, a residential correctional facility on the southwest Cedar Rapids campus of the Sixth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services. Hinzman has been executive director of the department since 1989.

Corbett’s placement of his name on a building came in 2000, the year after he left the Iowa Legislature as Speaker of the House to become president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. He left the Chamber in 2005 to become a vice president at CRST Inc., a Cedar Rapids trucking firm.

Corbett, as House speaker, shares space on the Training School cottage with Tom Miller, the Iowa Attorney General. Both were credited with working “to develop a spectrum of services for troubled juveniles,” according to the legislative action placing the Corbett and Miller names on the Eldora cottage.

Hinzman, a former Cedar Rapids police chief, joined the Department of Correctional Services 20 years ago.

In that time, he moved the department’s operation from a neighborhood setting to a campus in an industrial area on the edge of town. From there, the campus and its services have expanded. His department’s board decided to affix his name on one of the new buildings that has gone up on the campus over the years.

Three other names also have been circulated now as mayor possibilities. They are current council members Brian Fagan, an attorney, and Monica Vernon, a business owner, and former mayoral candidate Scott Olson, a local Realtor.

Mayor Kay Halloran said she won’t comment on a reelection bid until after the Iowa Legislature is done with its work, which usually comes in April.

Who are you for? Anonymous phone survey has 5 on list for mayor: Corbett, Fagan, Hinzman, Olson and Vernon

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Gary Hinzman, Mayor Kay Halloran, Monica Vernon, Paul Pate, Ron Corbett, Scott Olson on January 12, 2009 at 4:40 pm

An anonymous phone survey conducted in recent days in Cedar Rapids has been asking a scientific sampling of residents some questions about city government. The survey ends with a bottom line: Who do you want for mayor, Corbett, Fagan, Hinzman, Olson or Vernon?

Yes, this is a municipal election year, and six of the nine Cedar Rapids City Council seats are on the ballot, including the mayoral seat currently held by Kay Halloran.

The phone survey did not include Halloran’s name among the list of five it was seeking to find out information about, and she has not said if she will seek reelection.

The first question you need to ask is this: Do you know the first names of the five in the survey and why they are on the list?

Actually, all five are well known and accomplished.

Corbett is Ron Corbett, who has been past speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives and, more recently, president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce from 1999 until mid-2005. He left the chamber to take a vice-president post at CRST International.

Fagan is Brian Fagan, a Cedar Rapids attorney, at-large City Council member elected in 2005 and the council’s mayor pro tem.

Hinzman is Gary Hinzman, executive director of the Sixth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services and former Cedar Rapids police chief.

Olson is Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor and architect, who lost a run for the mayor’s job in 2005 in a close contest with Halloran.

Vernon is Monica Vernon, a local business owner and the District 2 council member who won election in 2007.

Vernon is president of Vernon Research Inc., a company that conducts phone surveys. However, Vernon said on Monday that neither she nor her firm is conducting the survey. Others said the survey calls were coming from an area code outside of Eastern Iowa.

Some reported Paul Pate, mayor from 2002 through 2005, was on the list, but others reported last evening he was not.

Surprising neighborhood-building legacy taking shape for Paul Pate

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Paul Pate on September 18, 2008 at 2:46 am

It was nice seeing Paul Pate last week.

Pate, the city’s last full-time mayor under its former commission form of government, turned out for the city’s open house at the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel to see what options the city’s team of consultants had come up with to protect the city against future floods.

Pate was in blue suit and tie, nicely tanned and in good cheer. He always did have a great laugh.

Talking to him was a reminder that both he and Lee Clancey, whom Pate unseated as mayor in 2001, liked a city form of government that featured a full-time mayor along with a city manager or city administrator.

The city’s Home Rule Charter Commission, though, opted for a “weak-mayor” form of government with a part-time mayor and council and full-time city manager. It is the option cities have chosen over the years, seeing it as a little longer on professional management and a little shorter on local politics.

Pate, who served as mayor from 2002 through 2005, chose not to run for the part-time post once voters decided in a referendum in 2005 to go that route. He’s back running his asphalt company.

Though not in city office, Pate actually is having a city legacy created for him in the aftermath of June’s flooding.

The City Council now is moving aggressively to bring to life a neighborhood-building initiative that Pate, though he didn’t create the idea, near single-handedly insisted on bringing to life in his last year in office in 2005.

The initiative is called HAND – Housing and Neighborhood Development. It consists of the city using city money to buy up vacant lots in a 14-block area of the Oak Hill Neighborhood. Money also is available to help provide incentives for builders and homebuyers to make the new homes “attainable” and perhaps “affordable” for those who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

One home has been built to date, but Skogman Homes this week now has said it will build the next 11. The goal is for a total of 50 new homes.

It seems an improbable legacy for Pate, a pretty conservative Republican in a universe where inventive inner-city housing initiatives often are thought to come from Democrats. Beyond that, Cedar Rapids City Hall really has not invested itself much in housing matters using city funds.

But Pate, a former state senator, former Iowa Secretary of State and one-time Republican candidate for governor, did an unexpected thing. Actively participating in the U.S. Conference of Mayors when he was mayor, he got himself named as co-chairman of a national task force on homelessness and hunger. That made him determined to take a step to implement a program in Cedar Rapids to address what he was dealing with on a national level.

To commit city funding for HAND was no easy task for Pate in 2005 in a tight-budget time among a five-member City Council members scrambling to find money for firefighters, police officers and all the rest. It was not a unanimous vote in favor of Pate’s plan.

This week, at Wednesday evening’s council meeting, council member Brian Fagan noted that the HAND idea had, to date, been an “underperforming” one. And Fagan added that another model might be worth exploring down the road in other neighborhoods. But Fagan called the Skogman plan to build 11 homes in the HAND district an “exciting” one.