Friday, May 24, 2013

Filling in an empty quarter

Earlier posts testify to my attachment to downtown Cedar Rapids (or downtown anywhere, for that matter). But in the nearly 25 years that I've lived here, downtown development has faced a huge handicap. It is surrounded on all sides by dead zones, which despite a few contributing businesses exhibit no signs of civic life. This makes downtown an island, with some attractions and employers but unable to draw continually on the city for the stuff of life.

To the northwest, downtown is blocked by the large factories of Cargill and Quaker Oats, the interstate highway, and A Avenue, which was quite the urban boulevard back in the day but is now essentially a service road. To the southwest, across the river, the 2008 flood wrought a great deal of destruction, but even before then the area was underused. In a couple years the casino will go in there; I'm doubtful that will help. Southeast of downtown there's been some remarkable development in the New Bohemia area, but between the two--between 5th Avenue and maybe 10th Avenue--there's a large swath of large buildings and large parking lots. Which is what you find to the northeast as well, beginning as soon as 5th Street and going to around 12th. Here are some pictures I took this morning a little past 10, walking down 8th Street:

 (A Avenue at 8th Street, looking n.e. towards St. Luke's Hospital)

 (1st Av, looking northeast; at right is the masonic lodge)

 (2nd Av looking southeast; the new fire station is under construction at right)

 (8th St, looking n.w. from 3rd Av towards 2nd; at right is
Phong Lan, a very fine Vietnamese restaurant)

There are some lovely buildings in that area--First Presbyterian Church, Immaculate Conception, and Daniel Arthur's Restaurant--but in general there's no action. Even in the middle of the day there's no one on the street. People apparently walk from their offices to their cars, and then drive somewhere else.

Now comes a group with the power and resources to bring this dead zone to life. A group of area business owners, including our two non-profit but gigantic hospitals, are at work on a master plan for a Medical District. Last night I attended a public open house facilitated by the Lakota public relations firm of Chicago. I am very curious but not particularly hopeful.

The group has formed a SSMID, which stands for Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District, and is pronounced "smid." A map of the district can be found here. The SSMID designation allows members to raise a surtax among themselves, to keep the proceeds in the area, and to direct how these additional funds are appropriated by the city. (Thanks to Phil Wasta of Tallgrass Business Resources who patiently explained this to me last night. I hope I got it right.) These resources will allow them to proceed with improvements to the area.

The SSMID commission is trying to tip their hand as little as possible. Scott Freres of Lakota said, "Our ideas haven't jelled yet. There are none." I find this hard to believe, but last night they were mainly about soliciting public comments. There were stations devoted to questions about transportation in and out of the district, visual design and branding, opportunities for improvements, and miscellaneous "big ideas." I don't know, without a plan to respond to, that the public's input was substantively valuable. I'm sure my half-formed opinions were not. Their questions weren't always clear; if we're shown two pictures of raised planters, are they asking to choose between styles? Then what of pocket parks, which I strongly support, but not if they're like the one depicted (a bunch of adults standing on a brick patio)? Members of the Save CR Heritage preservation group were present to advocate for not demolishing any more historic buildings, which certainly is a valuable perspective.

In talking with various people last night, I came away with the idea that the commission is mainly concerned about people driving in from surrounding counties seeking the district and finding what they're looking for when they get there. This would be done with better signage, prettier landscaping, and clear branding. Other than branding, which I suspect is heavily overrated by the branding industry, I agree that these are necessary steps. (If I get cancer, I just want to go somewhere where they will make it go away, whether or not it has a name, raised planters and wrought iron signage.) But these steps amount to a limited vision where the city needs a broader one.

To build connections across downtown and between parts of the city, there needs to be free flow through them. (Here I follow the new urbanists, of whom I've posted earlier.) That means, for starters, one should be able to walk from Wellington Heights on the east side to the Taylor Area Neighborhood on the west side at any time of day and find plenty of activity. This requires at least (a) a greater variety of businesses to attract people to the area; (b) a variety of residential developments; and (c) ordinary places for those people to shop and play. From New Bo to the MedQuarter, there are now no grocery stores, no hardware stores, two pharmacies (open only during the day) and one playground (in New Bo). So who would want to live there?

I got very few signals that the MedQuarter folk are interested in developing such connections. The blocking of 2nd Avenue between 12th and 10th last year certainly indicates it wasn't then a priority. The project planners can certainly talk the new urbanist language; one of the maps even showed a "5 minute walk" radius, although for some reason it radiated from Immaculate Conception. But is there interest or motivation to help make it happen? Is it in the purview of businesses to take a broader view than their own bottom line? I remember the bank bailout in 2009, when instead of using the windfall to start lending and hiring the banks sat on it. President Obama's apparent naivete was widely panned at the time; banks aren't interested in implementing your public policy, you silly president, they're interested in making money. Apple's tax-avoidance contortions, revealed this week, were rational and legal, but done with utter disregard for America, Ireland and the other places they set up shop (or pseudo-shop). Should we expect more of the hospitals and their allies?

There are a few residences in the MedQuarter now, mostly old houses that have been converted to apartments.
(300 block of 8th St)

They're quite scruffy, and I'm sure their occupants are, too. If this block gets prettied up, where will they go? What will happen to them?

MedQuarter businesses and the city share interests in sustaining viable businesses and job creation. But the city's interests extend beyond that set, and I'm not hearing that the businesses consider that theirs do. I hope the SSMID will do more than turn an empty quarter into an empty quarter with a brand and better signage, but is there any reason to anticipate they will?

[Note: The SSMID commission plans two more public workshops this summer, at which I expect we'll get more details of what they have in mind. They tentatively plan to present their draft plan to the city in September, and the final plan in October.]

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