Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cedar Rapids development news

Two stories in today's Cedar Rapids Gazette raised issues of development. As a small city, we can get away with ignoring some issues that, say, Atlanta cannot, but probably we shouldn't.

The more compelling concerns development of Tower Terrace Road north of the city. It is an east-west route than runs off and on between Hiawatha and Marion. The proposal would include creating an interchange on I-380, widening the road and completing it all the way through to state highway 13 on the east side of Marion. The towns of Marion, Robins and Hiawatha very much want to do this; the City of Cedar Rapids is rather hostile, and is using its weight on the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization to obstruct it. They have proposed funding trails instead, and while I love trails and $4 million could build a whole bunch of them, I think this is a red herring.

There are two things at the crux of this controversy. First, the completed Tower Terrace Road would enable a good deal of commercial development in the three outlying towns, which would get them some nice property tax revenue and possibly make them more attractive to future residents. Assuming there is commercial development waiting to happen, there is a zero-sum game when it comes to property taxes: Businesses in Cedar Rapids pay taxes to Cedar Rapids, businesses in Marion pay taxes to Marion, and so forth. It's a competition, in which revenue that goes to Cedar Rapids doesn't go to Marion, and vice versa. Secondly, to the extent that the development is successful, it will add to the existing sprawl of the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area. It's worth mentioning that the financial contribution of the CMPO would be a small percentage of the total project cost; it would essentially be some skin in the game to leverage financing by the state and federal government. A couple posts ago I mentioned how national government policy has contributed in a large way to sprawl around the country, and here is a prime local example.

The Gazette editorial notes the valid concerns of the City of Cedar Rapids, but concludes it would be unfair to deny the aspirations of the outlying towns. "[W]e think," they write, "Cedar Rapids must temper its own preferences with the needs of its growing neighbors. It needs to tamp down its natural competitive instincts and consider the good of the region, especially in its dealings with the CMPO. The ultimate goal should be a comprehensive transportation system that helps the region grow and thrive. We think both of these priorities [trails and the project] fit that objective."

This is on the right track. I prefer "win-win" solutions to "win-lose." It doesn't address either the finite pot of money available, or the long-term unsustainability of sprawl. I think a better "win-win" solution would be to support the Tower Terrace Road project, while leveraging it to create a viable regional plan. This would include a meaningful urban growth boundary, regional property tax sharing, and a no-poaching agreements among all area municipalities. (I'd make them take the casino, too, but that's just me joking, ha ha.) The additional sprawl created by Tower Terrace Rd would be a small price to pay for a serious effort to cap future sprawl. I'm for drilling in ANWR and building the XL Pipeline, too, if they can be used to leverage a serious approach to future energy policy, like a serious gasoline tax.

Less controversially, John Smith of CRST International has proposed building a multistory commercial building on the river side of 1st St SE, where the First Street Parkade was formerly located, and where there is currently a surface parking lot. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz is appropriately psyched: "We think it's going to be a signature building, meaning it's going to be a very attractive addition to the downtown skyline."



(current parking lot, facing Alliant Building, 4/22/13)


(architects' drawing of proposed building)

I agree with Pomeranz that this is an exciting idea, and I hope it comes to pass, and I hope it connects to the Skywalk System. I'm thrilled that a heavyweight like Smith wants to invest in our downtown. The stickler seems to be the lost parking lot; Smith has suggested building underground parking for 250-300 cars. That reminds me that one way our country subsidizes auto use is through acres and acres of parking spaces. A recent "Freakonomics" podcast estimated there are 800,000,000 surface parking spaces in the U.S., not counting driveways and parking garages. We sure do pave a lot so we can drive a lot. Do I have a better idea? No. Go for it, Mr. Smith.


SOURCES

Dave DeWitte, "CRST Plans Major Headquarters Expansion in Cedar Rapids." Cedar Rapids Gazette,  23  March 2013 [http://c27980.r80.cf1.rackcdn.com/business380.com/135179/crst-rendering2.jpg].

"Metro Pathways." Cedar Rapids Gazette, 21 April 2013, 9A, 12 A [http://thegazette.com/2013/04/21/metro-pathways/].

Rick Smith, "CRST Wants to Join Downtown Skyline." Cedar Rapids Gazette, 21 April 2013, 1A, 7A [http://thegazette.com/2013/04/21/crst-looking-to-join-downtown-skyline/].

Rick Smith, "Tower Terrace Road Becoming a Battle Line." Cedar Rapids Gazette, 9 April 2013 [http://thegazette.com/2013/04/09/tower-terrace-road-becoming-a-battle-line/].

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