Thursday, August 8, 2013

Auto-Row Historic District update

The mission-style Firestone building is not going to be part of
an Auto-Row Historic District...

...but there's still a possibility for this former Pontiac dealership.

The proposed Auto-Row Historic District received the final nail in its coffin at tonight's meeting of the Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation Commission, at least in its current form. Several speakers raised the possibility of creating a smaller version of the district some time in the future.

Terry Toye of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) told the commission that FEMA supported the current proposal of the City of Cedar Rapids and other stakeholders to use the money that had been intended to support the Auto-Row designation for seeding a new program in historic preservation at Kirkwood Community College. The proposal to use FEMA money for this program is now up for 30-day review, Toye said. She added that FEMA is anxious to get the original grant application, which dates from 2008, closed out.

The money under discussion has an odd history. After the 2008 flood, FEMA awarded the city a flood mitigation grant to repair the heavily-damaged 1st Street Parkade. When the city decided instead to demolish the parkade, it proposed an alterate project, that being the creation of the Auto-Row Historic District. It would have commemorated the building of numerous auto-related businesses along 2nd and 3rd Avenues SE beginning in the 1910s, and helped to preserve those structures still standing. The proposed district would have included 2nd Avenue on both sides from 6th to 7th Streets, and on the south side from 7th to 10th Streets; and 3rd Avenue on both sides from 7th to above 8th Street, except for a parking lot on the southwest corner of 3rd and 8th. The proposal was vigorously opposed by St. Luke's Hospital, but supported by many smaller property owners. A further twist in the drama occurred when several supporters were not notified of a meeting of stakeholders last winter. Faced with apparent majority opposition, including the powerful medical interests, the city withdrew its earlier support for the project and switched to the Kirkwood proposal. (No supporting businesses were present at this meeting.)

Toye said that if the signatories switched back to Auto-Row, FEMA would be amenable, but noted that contributing structures between 7th and 10th Streets have been demolished since the original proposal making the overall case weaker, besides which time is running out on the original grant. She noted the peculiarity of the process that led to the Kirkwood proposal, but did not seem fazed by it.

Several members of the commission, while acknowledging the finality of the grant decision, expressed hope that some Auto-Row proposal could go independently forward. Todd McNall admitted "HPC made some decisions without all the property owners having been notified," and so "we should pursue some designation." Tim Oberbroeckling asked "How many [businesses] are going to pull out" of historic structures in the area without the designation and the financial incentives that come with it, and with the possibility of generous purchase offers either from downtown or medical interests. Mark Stoffer Hunter argued there is "plenty of real estate for both [new commercial development and historic preservation] to happen," as has been the case downtown and in New Bohemia.

Most discussion centered on the block of 2nd Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets. There are seven buildings on the block, all businesses or nonprofits, six close enough to their original design to be considered "contributing." Doug Jones of the state historic preservation organization was encouraging, noting that a lot of the research and preliminary comments had already been done relative to the original proposal.

John Albert {?} of the MedQuarter commission said that historic preservation is part of the master development plan they are working on.

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