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SPECIAL REPORT: Downtown Cedar Rapids


Chicago historians often remark that Mrs. OLearys mythical cow and the very real Great Chicago Fire was the best thing to ever happen to the windy city.  It provided a fresh canvas for planners to start over.  Amid agonizing suffering in Cedar Rapids, few publicly proclaim the same optimism following record flooding here, but privately they point to the opportunities for renewal.  City leaders have been both praised and criticized for their vision, but theres no dispute that downtown Cedar Rapids has come a long way from city streets lined with dumpsters and construction equipment five years ago.


Chris Miller, the G.M. of Zins Restaurant on 2nd Avenue shows a visitor the large framed wall hanging that dominates one wall.  We call it the Shroud of Zins, he says with a mix of pride and weariness in his voice.  The shroud is one of the many white table cloths found still in place after the Cedar River showed up without a reservation in June of 2008.  You can clearly see where the dark mud left behind a bright white outline of silverware, plates, glasses and anything else sitting on the tables.  Miller says Zins reopened exactly one year after it was forced to close.  This is the first year since the flood were we felt were better than we were before the flood as a downtown. 


The display of that strength is everywhere.  A grand new library, a brand new fire station and sparkling new U.S. Cellular Center.  White Star just sounds like the company that owned the Titanic, Andy Franks Ale House is actually helping the downtown stay afloat.  To stand in the back of the Paramount Theater five years ago and stand there today, can only make one marvel at the miracle.  A new Ground Transportation Center is just weeks away from opening and though the Double Tree Hotel proved to be a sore spot with skeptics, its a city showcase.  Its all part of more than $500-million in downtown renovation and renewal city leaders point to with pride. 

City council member Don Karr says it required everyone to focus on the goal.   Lets get to work, lets get it done, lets go do it and we did.  What weve done in four years is beyond anything any community has ever done after a disaster of this magnitude.    Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler says its more proof of the determination to bring the downtown back better and stronger.    In Cedar Rapids 82% of our flooded businesses have returned to be in business compared to a national average of 55%.  Were very proud of the businesses and their tenacity.


But a stones throw from any of those success stories, you can find hulking shells of vacant buildings.  First Avenue and First, Second Avenue and Second, First Avenue and Second, Fourth Avenue and Third, First Avenue and Third and more dark windows.  Skogman commercial real estate broker Scott Olson says five years after the flood  more than 600-thousand square feet of downtown office space sits empty.  The longtime agent and city council member points  at huge exposed wooden beams on the ceiling of a vacant space on the upper floor of the Hach building near Smulekoffs.  He says not that long ago one of the likely reasons for vacant places like this to stay empty and a huge downtown problem in general was clear.  The number one question that comes up when people look at the downtown is .. parking .. parking .. parking.


But a new ramp already opened across from the Double Tree and another opens in just weeks near the new federal building.  That leaves city planners to realize that no matter what they do to attract new companies, employees  may never be coming back to some of that empty office space.  At the same time, downtown bar and restaurant owners point out that on nights when there arent events at the U.S. Cellular Center or Paramount, daytime crowds often disappear after dark and 7 months of the year when temperatures dive south of 70 the foot traffic can be pretty sparse.  Thats sparked more discussion and desire for a catalyst, the something thats missing that could change everything.  Assistant City Manager Fowler says one of the obvious answers is people.  There really is a group who want to live in downtown Cedar Rapids and were excited to give them that opportunity.    Real estate agent Olson says swapping office space no one seems to want for downtown living thats in demand could spell huge success. Whats going to follow that is more restaurants, more bars and potentially grocery stores.   White Stars  Franks says more people actually living in downtown Cedar Rapids would have a great impact on business.  He says not only would they never have to look for a parking space, but they would be a regular and reliable clientele. 


Its a discovery Des Moines, Dubuque and Davenport have already made.  Higher end, loft style apartments and condos above bars and stores are what engineers, other young professionals and empty nesters say they want.  A few are already underway in Cedar Rapids, including Coventry Gardens and plans for the Mott building on the west bank.  The later site shows promise as a great combo with the new, nearby amphitheater.  But the challenge is getting building owners to convert some of that empty downtown office space to housing.  Olson says there are historic tax incentives, but they can take up to a year to navigate all the paperwork.  Meantime some critics watching all the costly changes over the past five years are on edge about any more.  Cedar Rapids activist Carol Martin says shes not against responsible progress, but she sees the city continuing to use the flood as an excuse to misuse millions in tax dollars.   I stand by my claim the city has wasted a lot of money .. regardless of whether we get it from FEMA or the state or something  else, were all paying the taxes and quite frankly it was over-kill.  Theres so many things we didnt have to do that weve done.


City leaders counter, that they can justify every dime and many see the decade following the flooding as a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure the future of Iowas second city.  Olson says the next half decade will tell the tale of recovery in Cedar Rapids.  I firmly believe in the next five years that well have two to three times more people living downtown than we currently have .. and less office space and more activities occurring in the core, especially if the casino is successful in getting a license.           

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