Friday, October 25, 2013

Filling in an Empty Quarter (II)

The MedQuarter SSMID folk and their consultants, the Lakota Group of Chicago, revealed more of their plans for invigorating this underused area last night at an open house at St. Luke's Hospital. (The first open house, mainly intending to solicit public opinion, occurred in May; my post on that event is here.) I found last night's event encouraging in a number of ways; though several nagging questions remain unaddressed, I am now confident this will be a positive development for Cedar Rapids.

The plan appears very open, particularly facing downtown. The blue dots in the left diagram below represent "gateways," which would consist of signage announcing the district but which otherwise would blend into what's already there. (The schematic drawing of the one across 1st Av from Coe showed a sign blocking a driver's view of Brewed Awakenings, but they assured me that would not happen in practice.) On the right, the yellow shaded area between the medical operations and downtown is projected to be housing, which would go far to connect the two zones and fill in the land space.

The plan also makes use of existing structures, instead of tearing them down; the historic Brewer House on 4th Av, for example, would be converted to office space. (On the other hand, the Knights of Columbus building on 1st Av was taken down last night, while we were meeting, and it's not clear what the plans are for other older buildings.) They propose to work with the existing street system rather than closing any more of them.

The most exciting aspect of the plan for me was the human scale of many of the facilities. In the district now are three enormous health care facilities and a lot of open space. Much of what is now open or featureless or underused would be filled in, and it looked from eyeballing it that the current sea of surface parking would be tamed somewhat. This picture shows what 4th Av might look like at its intersection with 6th St; if you can magnify the picture enough to see the inset you can see what it looks like now and that it could stand some improvement.

Secondly, a lot of what they're proposing would be at a human scale. With the hospitals, PCI, the convention center, and the new federal courthouse, I think this part of town has about as much massiveness as it can stand.
The small features depicted in the schematic above would enhance walking rather than making it more difficult. A green walk along 4th Av from downtown to 10th St would provide a connector that could encourage business development, which would of course lead to further walkability.

All that said in favor of the MedQuarter district's direction, there are some remaining concerns. I'd like to see more about how they propose to orient to Wellington Heights, the working-class neighborhood across 10th St. The PCI building not only closed 2nd Av between 10th and 12th, it creates a barrier between the neighborhood and the medical district (and the downtown beyond). That leaves 3rd, 4th and 5th Aves as through streets that cross 10th. Can they be made more welcoming, not only for out-of-town drivers, but for local bikers and walkers?

Secondly, I wonder about the mix of business and housing the district envisions, and how it will be distributed. Ideally, it would be widely-distributed, not just concentrated in the area adjacent to downtown and along 1st Ave. Wide distribution of businesses would provide a lively atmosphere during the day, and wide distribution of housing would keep the streets alive in the evenings. Thank you, Jane Jacobs.

Third, I'm hoping the completed district will have a variety of building types, including historic and not-so-historic buildings.

(Rental housing in the 300 block of 8th St)

Shiny new buildings are individually nice, but a district that's all shiny aesthetically fails and makes people uncomfortable rather than encouraging them to be out and about. Older buildings are easier for businesses and working-class people to rent. Health care consumers are predominantly older and upper-middle-class, of course, but this shouldn't become an enclave.

My May 2013 post on this subject:

MedQuarter SSMID website:

Gazette story on the open house by Chelsea Keenan:

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