Sunday, November 10, 2013

Downtown, where all the lights are bright?

(People's Savings Bank, 101 3rd Av SW;
photo by me of an older photo in their offices, of unknown provenance)

Late last week came news, thanks to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, that this former bank building, occupied most recently by Wells Fargo, is going come April to be an "upscale" Italian restaurant called Popoli Ristorante. This is a triumph for historic preservationists, who worked long and hard to save this building, designed by Louis H. Sullivan and erected in 1912. It's an exciting business opportunity for general manager Brandon Godwin. And it's a first step towards redeveloping the west side of the river in the downtown area.

Popoli will join several other fine dining establishments in downtown Cedar Rapids: Zins', Cobble Hill, and the just-opened Syndicate European Pub (described by its owner, my neighbor Kory Nanke, as offering "elevated pub food"). I wonder how many upscale dining establishments our downtown can support? My friend Niles wonders whether downtown as a whole is going to be an enclave for the smart set?

He has a point. During the day downtown Cedar Rapids offers a variety of lunch places and coffeehouses. At night what stays open are mainly bars and upscale restaurants. (A couple notable exceptions are The Lost Cuban, which is open for dinner four nights a week, and the Blue Strawberry Coffee Company, open every night but Sunday. Both specialize in sandwiches. A pork chop, or spaghetti of the non-upscale variety, are harder to come by.) The theaters and the convention center are usually--though not always--pretty pricey as well.

I think it's premature to criticize downtown, which is in transition. Downtown Cedar Rapids, like any locality, obviously should encourage and welcome business investment, and such as has occurred so far has understandably responded to what is happening there now. The nature of future investment, then, depends on what downtown's in transition to, and also whether both options are still open given what development has occurred.

Right now downtown is a intra-city destination. As yet few people live there, and there's very little surrounding it, so it's an island of culture, food and (on weekdays) offices accessible mainly by car. Will this continue to be the case in the future? Without diversification downtown will remain something of an upscale enclave, vulnerable to downturns in the economy or changes in fashion. (In the early 1990s Cleveland, Ohio developed a former heavy industrial district near the Cuyahoga River into a fashionable destination called "The Flats," but within ten years the smart set had abandoned it for other destinations. Presumably the New Bo folk have heard of this?)

Another, better possibility is that downtown becomes the hub of a connected city. This is going to require filling in much of the empty quarters that surround it, and doing so in a way that attracts a variety of residents and businesses. A reasonable amount of foot traffic would transform, for example, Phong Lan, a wonderful and
(photo swiped from

reasonably-priced Vietnamese restaurant in the MedQuarter district that currently seems to survive on take-out orders. A critical mass of people at all hours of the day and evening, the Jane Jacobs formula, would produce a very different downtown than we've got now... one with "vibe," to quote one Coe student's one word diagnosis of what is currently lacking, and one accessible to everyone in town. Very likely it would be able to support intercity rail service as well.

A connected, urban city needs more than a vibrant downtown. It needs lively neighborhoods which are more than collections of houses. Niles and I live in different parts of town, but neither of us lives within casual walking distance of a single restaurant or store. My Coe colleague Bob Marrs suggested that Mound View,
the neighborhood adjacent to Coe (with Dairy Queen, the Tic Toc, and Hy-Vee) is probably the only

neighborhood in Cedar Rapids where it is customary to walk to places. Not all parts of town have the potential to host corner stores and "third places" within walking distance of most residents, but where they can be built they would go far to revivifying our neighborhoods.

P.S.--Notice I haven't said anything about the casino, despite its presence on the near west side, practically across the street from the Popoli Ristorante. I think of the casino as its own planet, where people come and leave without doing anything else in the area. The fine dining establishments downtown, then, will succeed or fail on their own, without regard to the casino. That's probably true of the overall development of the downtown-and-surrounding-area, though given the space the casino will occupy it will be something of an obstruction.

P.S.S.--Mentally, I am woefully understaffed when it comes to local economic development. I hope in the weeks to come to learn more about this topic, specifically what research elsewhere suggests is possible here.

1 comment:

  1. Presumably, and actually, a few New Bo folks are aware of the phenomenon you mention. (Hello, Kingston Village!)


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