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

Posts Tagged ‘Neighborhoods’

Brouhaha in Oakhill Jackson over weeds and native plants and the power of a City Council member to call in the mowers

In Jerry McGrane, Neighborhoods on July 22, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Mike Richards and Jerry McGrane are engaged in a spitting match over Poet’s Park.

The dispute – between the president of the Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood Association and his predecessor, now a City Council member — is over a small flower garden that sits with a landmark stone at 12th Avenue and Otis Road SE to tell passers-by that they are in the neighborhood.

The spot, created on city land several years ago by the neighborhood association, is now called Poet’s Park.

On Wednesday afternoon, Richards fired off a press release, saying that McGrane had inappropriately used his standing as a City Council member to call on the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to mow down what Richards says were native Iowa prairie plants at the site.

McGrane fired right back, saying he did nothing of the kind. He said he brought the park up to city staff a few weeks ago in a general discussion about maintaining the smaller parks in the city.

Further, he said “due to Michael Richards’ laziness” as the neighborhood president, the garden at the triangular intersection at 12th Avenue and Otis Road SE had all gone to weeds.

McGrane also disputed that there were many native plants at the site, “unless you want to call weeds native plants,” he said.

Richards fired back: Just because McGrane doesn’t know what native plants look like doesn’t mean they weren’t there, Richards said.

As Richards tells it, all this came to light on Wednesday when a team of AmeriCorps Green Corps members showed up at the park at Richards’ request to clean up and weed the flower garden. The city employee was just finishing up his mowing at the site, Richards said.

Tim Reynolds, one of the Green Corps members, late Wednesday afternoon said the space in question was home to native plantings. Three other areas in the park also have plots of native plantings, and he said the Corps members cleaned those up and put new mulch in them on Wednesday.

Richards thought there the plants had been permanently damaged, though Reynolds said they would grow back.

McGrane said he knows someone willing to donate money to replace what he says was weeds with new plantings.

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Vernon vents; dresses down City Manager Prosser for not getting police substation in storefront at 1501 First Ave. SE open quickly

In Greg Graham, Jim Prosser, Monica Vernon, Neighborhoods on June 18, 2009 at 9:10 am

Council member Monica Vernon, fresh off her decision on Tuesday not to try a run for mayor, took time at Wednesday evening’s council meeting to tear into City Manager Jim Prosser.

Vernon, who for many months has made it clear she thinks the current City Council has acceded too much power to Prosser, was angry that the Police Department had not yet gotten the city’s first police substation open in a vacant storefront at 1501 First Ave. SE.

Police Chief Greg Graham initially had said he wanted to be in the building in June in the wake of an attack on police officer Tim Davis just two blocks away.

It’s not worked out that way, and Vernon isn’t happy about it.

Wednesday evening, looking straight at Prosser, Vernon declared that the city has a crime problem, that crime is at its worst in the summer, and it was important to have gotten the substation open.

She called the matter “a can-do moment” and said Prosser has not had a “can-do attitude” about getting the project done.

Vernon then lit into City Attorney Jim Flitz, suggesting that he worries too much about preventing problems rather than solving them.

“I’m really disgusted about this,” Vernon said.

Council member Tom Podzimek calmly weighed in and suggested that the council take what steps it can to speed matters along. Then Podzimek defended Flitz: “I do think our attorney’s job is to keep us out of jail.”

Flitz said he didn’t have anything to do with the procedural steps required by state law to take bids on a renovation project.

The building needs about $50,000 in renovation work before it can be occupied. Last week, Chief Graham said it would likely be fall before the building is ready.

Prosser explained that he had taken a risk by proposing that the building’s owner do the renovations rather than the city so the job would not require public bidding and could be done faster. The cost of that was too great and couldn’t be done, he explained.

By looking at that approach, though, the project got delayed a bit, he said.

“We tried something and it didn’t work,” he said.

Even so, Prosser assured the council that the Police Department has taken additional steps to beef up their presence in the area even if the substation, which he called “symbolically” important and a good practical asset, is not yet in place.

Council member Jerry McGrane said neighborhood leaders are disappointed that the substation isn’t open yet. He called it “very unsettling.” He suggested Prosser talk to the neighborhoods.

Wellington Heights’ president invites council for an awareness walk; castigates suggestion that garbage crews wear bullet-proof vests

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Neighborhoods on May 15, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Terry Bilsland, longtime president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association, this week invited the City Council on a 20-block-long neighborhood walk the evening of May 21 to help concerned citizens make it clear they aren’t going to put up with criminal activity.

The walkers will travel through parts of both the Wellington Heights Neighborhood and the Mound View Neighborhood, which are split by First Avenue East.

A similar walk a few years ago mobilized council member Brian Fagan and others to push for a new Enhance Our Neighborhoods initiative, an initiative that got set aside a bit after last June’s flood, but is now, City Hall says, back on the front burner.

Evidence of that is the Police Department’s move to open a district police station in June at 1501 First Ave. SE between the two neighborhoods. Code enforcement officers and other city employees will call the district station home, too.

Bilsland, who is known for working with City Hall to try to get things done, had another issue on his own front burner that he let the City Council know about this week. Bilsland referred to a TV news report in which a city solid waste employee apparently said he wanted the city to issue him a bullet-proof vest to pick up garbage in Wellington Heights.

Bilsland, who is not shy about chiding the local media when he says it unfairly characterizes Wellington Heights, said the matter suppossedly centered on a dispute over garbage, and Bilsland wanted to know how often that has happened in the neighborhood and how often it happens elsewhere in the city. He was sure it was a rare event and certainly no more frequent in one place than another.

He told the City Council that he expected solid waste employees to wear the bullet-proof vests citywide if such vests were ever issued, and Bilsland said he’d be out checking to make sure the workers — if the city was going to spend such money — had the vest on even when it was 100 degrees outside and no matter which part of the city they were in.

Police Chief Graham says Cedar Rapids has too few black police officers; recruiting officers of any race difficult these days, he says

In Neighborhoods, Police Department on April 9, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Police Chief Greg Graham says the 200-officer Cedar Rapids Police Department should have more than three black police officers.

The matter came up Thursday afternoon as Graham took an hour’s worth of questions on a wide range of subjects from the editorial staff and from reporters at The Gazette.

The question about black police officers was posed in the wake of an assault on a Cedar Rapids police officer by three black youth, an assault that has left the officer in the hospital in guarded condition and has increased the city’s police presence in neighborhoods with larger black populations.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, too, the city’s Civil Rights Commission is sponsoring a forum at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in the Wellington Heights Neighborhood to discuss criminal violence and neighborhood police presence.

The diversity of a city’s police force, the chief said Thursday, should “mirror” the diversity of the city, and three black officers, he said, is too few for a city like Cedar Rapids. The shortage of black officers is something he noticed early on after assuming the chief’s job in June 2008, he said.

The U.S. Census in 2000 put the city’s black population at 3.7 percent, and a census estimate in 2006 put that figure at 4.9 percent. For the Police Department’s makeup to match the city’s racial makeup, the department should have 9 or 10 black officers.

Prior to coming to Cedar Rapids, Graham had been deputy chief in Ocala, Fla., where he worked for a black police chief. But when asked if he had any network of contacts that might help in the recruitment of black officers, he said he wasn’t sure he did.

“The lack of minority officers is something we’re trying to address,” Graham offered.

But, in fact, he said it was difficult to recruit police officers, period, no matter what the race. At the same time, the current economic downturn might make public-sector law enforcement look more attractive to potential recruits, he said.

Graham said the department will be hiring a new recruit class in the months ahead, with training for that class set for summer. He said he would be willing to take questions about the racial makeup of the class at that time.

City Hall enthusiasm aside, Jack Hatch’s replacement housing for Oak Hill must wait; lousy economy, questions about flood protection are getting in the way

In City Hall, Floods, Neighborhoods on April 7, 2009 at 10:13 am

More than six months has passed now since Des Moines developer Jack Hatch unveiled a plan to no little City Hall enthusiasm to build the Oakhill Jackson Brickstone Apartments along Sixth Street SE.

Hatch chose to locate his so-called affordable housing proposal in the Oak Hill Neighborhood, which is near the downtown and long has been in decline, was flood damaged and has been a City Hall target for revitalization.

City Hall saw Hatch’s idea, which is financed in large part with federal tax credits with some city incentives, as a great example of “work force housing,” the label that city officials say better describes who lives in such housing than “affordable housing.”

All that came back at the start of October.

In an interview on Tuesday, Hatch, who is a state senator, said the project is on hold.

The reasons, he said, are at least three, with the primary reason being the difficulty in finding investors in a lousy economy.

Those potential investors, he said, also are a little skittish about building in a spot that was flooded in 2008, even though Hatch has proposed his two-building project with first-floor parking designed to flood.

Additionally, potential investors are interested in what will happen to Linn County’s flood-damaged, industrial-like Options building that backs up to Sixth Street SE. Hatch’s idea is that the county demolish the building – The Linn County Board of Supervisors said last week it is interested in moving Options to a new site with the Federal Emergency Management Agency paying most of the bill — so that large block can become open space or space for additional new residential development.

Hatch said none of the problems with the economy or the building site has deterred him from his commitment to build the Brickstone Apartments.

However, he acknowledged that he pulled the project from consideration this week by the Iowa Finance Authority.

The Authority awards federal tax credits for affordable housing proposals, but Hatch said he pulled his project for now from the Authority’s agenda until he secures his investors.

In tax-credit projects, corporations, for instance, contribute cash to an affordable housing project in exchange for credit against their federal tax bills over 10 years.

In recent years, tax credits have been limited, corporations have had cash to invest in them and the corporations have had to invest about 90 cents for $1 worth of tax credit.

Today, in the aftermath of Iowa’s 2008 flooding disasters, Iowa has received a major infusion of additional tax credits, but corporations have less cash to invest and those that do invest are investing only about 70 cents per $1 worth of tax credit.

“The difficulty is this global economy,” Hatch said Tuesday.

Hatch has successfully built several tax-credit financed projects in Des Moines, and is pushing ahead with an 18-unit building there even now.

But for now, his idea for Oak Hill Neighborhood must await.

At the same time, Hatch said his current difficulty in Cedar Rapids is more than the global economy. He said he thinks he could build the project elsewhere in the city, but he added he doesn’t want to. He said he has a commitment to the Oak Hill Neighborhood, and that’s where he thinks the project needs to be.

His proposal calls for building one Brickstone on the east side of Sixth Street SE at the corner of 12th Avenue SE and one on the west side of Sixth Street SE from Ninth to 10th avenues SE.

He envisions his development and others to help turn Sixth Street SE into a pedestrian-friendly area where residents can walk to Eighth Avenue SE and to the downtown.

Flood protection remains an issue for the project, he said, even though, as now designed, the project’s first floor will be reserved for flooding.

Hatch said he thinks the City Council should alter its recent decision not to provide additional, temporary flood protection below Eighth Avenue SE.

The council made the decision after city staff reported that it would cost $3 million to install temporary flood protection below Eighth Avenue on the east side of the river to protect only about $1 million of homes and first-floor properties.

Council pushes back a bit against vocal neighborhood leaders; nice drama unfolding between grass roots and City Hall on neighborhood flood recovery

In City Hall, Neighborhoods on March 27, 2009 at 11:55 am

The outspoken leaders in three neighborhoods hit by the June flood haven’t been the least bit bashful at letting the City Council know what it is doing wrong with the city’s flood recovery.

This week, those leaders – Michael Richards in Oak Hill/Jackson, Frank King in Time Check and Greg Stokesberry wit South West Area Neighbors — got some push back from the City Council.

The three neighborhood presidents had pitched proposals for the council to consider among 19 others as the council decided how to divide up $10,160,406 in special state funds as part of a new state Community Disaster Grant program.

Stokesberry was seeking $41,500 to help in the development of his neighborhood’s association. And all three presidents – aligned in a newly-created umbrella association called River Neighborhoods Alliance — were seeking $37,000 to create a new program called “Once-a-Neighbor Always-a-Neighbor” and $100,000 to create a peer advocacy center. Dianne Yanda, president of the Cedar Valley Neighborhood Association, also is listed as a member of the new neighborhood alliance.

In short, they didn’t get their money.

A council consensus converged around the thought that another of the proposals before the council, which did not come from this group of neighborhood leaders, was for a $100,000 grant to help with neighborhood organizational development. This proposal called for working with flood-impacted neighborhoods to strengthen their community connections and to advocate for their needs.

The council decided that the neighborhood organizations could work with the city to best figure out how to spend the $100,000.

Council member Justin Shields put it most bluntly when he said from what he could see there has been quite a bit of “disarray” among neighborhood associations and the arrival of some new faces on the scene as well.
“It’s a poor time to just start throwing money at them,” Shields said.

Council member Jerry McGrane, a member of the Oak Hill/Jackson Neighborhood Association and the group’s past president, said he wasn’t sure that the South West Area Neighbors had held a meeting in six months.
To all this, Oak Hill/Jackson’s Richards says City Hall is only willing to give “lip service to direct involvement” from existing neighborhood associations.

“Paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars for out-of-state consultants to ‘foster neighborhood governance’ is a very shallow and costly sham,” Richards says.

What all of this translates to in the larger picture is an unfolding drama that centers on just how much grass-roots-directed neighborhood leadership there should be versus how much City Hall-assisted neighborhood leadership there should be.

In the last two weeks, the neighborhood leaders also took it a bit on the chin after Stokesberry, Richards and King “demanded” that the city’s new Local-Option Sales Tax Oversight Committee include strong representation from the city’s flooded neighborhoods.

All three were among the 71 applicants for the committee. King withdrew his name, and the other two weren’t picked in a group of 24 finalists. Jon Galvin, vice president of Northwest Neighbors Association, was chosen, but then withdrew his name in protest.

Richards has said none of the 24 finalists is a neighborhood association member as far as he knew. But at the same time, he has said he and others will be providing plenty of sales-tax oversight whether they are on the committee or not.

To the great credit of most of these neighborhood association chiefs, they have taken time to be a part of City Hall-orchestrated Neighborhood Planning Process that will has been gathering more than 200 people together in eight workshops over four months to help create a game plan for neighborhood flood recovery.

Every time the sometimes-frustrated Richards has been asked about the city-led initiative, he has said he wouldn’t miss being a part of it.

As for the $10.1 million that the council handed out this week, about half went to fill flood-recovery gaps on the housing side and half on the business side. Included in the grants is $1.5 million to start a Neighborhood Development Corp., which will set up shop in one of the flood-damaged neighborhoods and focus on housing and commercial redevelopment in those neighborhoods. Habitat for Humanity also received $1 million to help it build 20 new homes this summer.

State judge sides with neighborhoods’ wish and city’s order to close First Avenue liquor store; mire of state appeal process slogs on

In City Hall, Neighborhoods on March 14, 2009 at 7:45 pm

It can take what seems forever to shut down a liquor store once a city council in Iowa decides to take away the store’s license.

Proof of that is the Liquor & Tobacco Point store, 1545 First Ave. SE, which sits on the border of two of the city’s urban neighborhoods, Wellington Heights and Mound View.

In early September and after protests from neighborhood leaders, the Police Department, which had approved a liquor license for the store in July, notified the store that it was in violation of city law: It was within 300 feet of a church, which, in this instance is the storefront church called Mission of Hope.

On Oct. 8, the Cedar Rapids City Council revoked the license of the liquor store, which was just opening.

It looked like a victory for the neighborhood leaders at something of a noteworthy spot. It is across busy First Avenue East from the still-new Hy-Vee Food Store, which was designed to be, with the help of significant City Hall financial incentives, a commitment and a catalyst to bring new life to a highly visible spot in the middle of two struggling neighborhoods.

However, the Oct. 8 vote by the City Council vote appeared not to matter at all.

Liquor & Tobacco Point stayed open. It is open. And it dispatched its attorney to move the dispute into the molasses of the appeal process at the state’s Alcohol Beverages Division.

Now, nearly five months later, the city and the neighborhood leaders have learned that they have won vindication from Margaret LaMarche, a state administrative law judge. In a ruling dated Feb. 25, LaMarche concludes that Liquor & Tobacco Point, indeed, should close and that the owner’s liquor license be rescinded to operate at the First Avenue East location.

In her 12-page ruling, LaMarche takes note that the Cedar Rapids Police Department had given the store a liquor license not realizing that the location was too close to a church. For that reason, the judge concluded that owner Rabbani Wahidy, of Cedar Falls, should have the license in Cedar Rapids rescinded rather than having his license to operate in Iowa revoked. He has another store in Cedar Falls.

But that is far from the end of it.

Carter Stevens, an attorney in Cedar Falls, said last week that the state appeal process pushes on.

He reported that he has 30 days to continue the appeal to Lynn Walding, the director of the state’s Alcohol Beverages Division.

Walding acknowledged last week that it could take as long as another four, five or six months before the state agency works through procedural steps and then makes a final decision in the case. Then Liquor & Tobacco Point can go to court to challenge any ruling unfavorable to the store.

In the meantime, the Mission of Hope church has begun to display a sign on its front window, seeking help from donors that will enable the 7-year-old church find a new location.

In what might be a year that it will take to close the liquor store down, the reason to close it – its proximity to a church – might vanish.

What will remain is the sentiment of the neighborhood leaders that their neighborhoods needed a bright, shiny new grocery store and that they don’t need another liquor store, tobacco store or payday loan store.