Friday, July 25, 2014

Filling in an Empty Quarter (III)

There's a story making the rounds this week about an apartment complex in New York City that has separate entrances for poor and non-poor residences. I don't know if it's true or not, and don't much care. It's such a perfect metaphor for America's struggles with difference and inequality. (For the record, research on mixed-income housing developments in Chicago by Robert J. Chaskin of the University of Chicago, published in the May 2013 special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, documents strong re-segregating tendencies, though maybe not at the door level.)

These struggles color my reading of the Cedar Rapids MedQuarter Master Development Plan, rolled out this week after much planning and consultation. The plan contains a lot of good ideas and hits a lot of the right notes. After all that, I'm not sure to what extent the group is making a priority to integrate with their surroundings, or even is concerned whether or not they contribute to development of the city.

The background: As downtown Cedar Rapids has developed since the 2008 flood, it has become increasingly apparent that a huge area immediately surrounding it is "empty": mostly devoid of interesting places, or even uninteresting places, mainly featuring several medical complexes and a huge series of parking craters. It is possible to walk for a long time in this area (though why would you want to?) without ever seeing another human being. It needs help. Without that help, I don't know how long downtown can sustain its development. But given the lately-burgeoning interest in urban life, especially among younger adults, there is a lot of potential here.
3 p.m. in the MedQuarter; US Post Office in background
The MedQuarter plan aims at developing the region roughly between 5th and 12th Streets, between the Wellington Heights neighborhood and downtown, that includes Mercy and St. Luke's Hospitals and the Physicians Clinic of Iowa complexes. It hopes to take what is currently a regional medical center and make it more aesthetically pleasant as well as commercially viable.

In doing so, it draws on a lot of current wisdom about what makes places successful. Though it will retain existing zoning designations it will work around their stultifying regulations (p. 40). It adopts the idea of "complete streets" (p. 13) the city has already bought into, which means buildings oriented to sidewalks and streets rather than parking lots, wide sidewalks, traffic calming, landscaping, and accommodation of bicycles and pedestrians (pp. 18-21). The 4th Avenue greenway (pp. 30-31) will be a vast improvement over most of what's there now, and provide beauty and recreational opportunity.

The 4th Ave Greenway can only improve block after block of surface parking...
...though can it accommodate these houses?
Rerouting truck traffic off 10th Street and adding bike lanes (p. 34) will be a start towards transforming what is now a hard border between the empty quarter and Wellington Heights. I'd like to see it reduced to two lanes of auto traffic as well, with a simple intersection at 8th Avenue. There are some interesting plans/hopes for developing a commercial district along 1st Avenue (pp. 32-33). Depending on what commercial development ensues, there is likely to be improved job opportunities for people in the surrounding neighborhoods. All are reasons to support implementation of this plan.

[And yet, declaring a street "complete" and walkable, or even building wide sidewalks, doesn't make it so. There need to be places to walk to, within reasonable walking distance. The picture of the future 7th Street on page 33 is absurdly optimistic, showing able-bodied pedestrians striding amidst very large buildings. Where are these people going? And why? Certainly it doesn't look like a very pleasurable walking environment. And where in this medical center are the sick people?]

Improving directional signs (pp. 23-25) is important and looks tasteful. Branding the district by frequently deploying red Q's on banners and even a Q-shaped bench is silly, but I can take it.

I'm more concerned that nowhere do the promoters of this plan take any responsibility for bringing this section of the city to its current state. The medical complexes expanded their facilities, spread parking lots and needlessly demolished historic buildings without regard to anyone's interests but their own. It's great that they've now got the urbanist religion, but their history makes it difficult to take seriously their goal to "respectfully integrate MedQuarter development with adjacent neighborhoods and districts" (p. 3).
More than two years on, the neighborhood adjacent to PCI is still looking at this
A statement like "Certain developments are poorly situated on their sites, some strip centers look outdated, and several areas are in disrepair" (p. 2) does not bode well for existing structures that don't fit with the MedQ program, regardless of what they contribute to the community. I'm less concerned about Firestone's lovely Art Deco building, which I think is safe, than I am with several scruffy old houses throughout the area that are currently used for rental housing.
Rooms for rent, 6th St SE, on the edge of the MedQ district
These homely structures can be worked around, accommodating the diversity of the district and contributing to a variety of uses throughout the day. Or they can be knocked down, with their lower-income residents moving Somewhere Else. If our project is about moving the poor Somewhere Else, in the name of either conformity or safety (pp. 2, 27), that's not respectful integration. It's just building a shiny medical kingdom.

Whether efforts at inclusiveness benefit the entire community is a subject in itself. I have argued elsewhere that it does, that the strongest community is one that treats all its members as equal and affords them all economic opportunity. To be sure, this doesn't happen automatically. Gentrification, even done with the best intentions, can price people out of the market. As the MedQuarter report points out, "Because of high land prices driven by proximity to major medical institutions, the potential for market-rate residential development within the MedQuarter is limited. Residential developers are not willing to pay as much for land as are to office and medical users" (p. 2). All that means is that inclusion and diversity require affirmative, coercive* effort.

[*P.S. [8/6/14] I didn't mean "coercive"--oh dear!--and now it's made it through the week, and onto "We Create Here" and into the Gazette. I think I meant "concerted." Oh deary, dear.]

ADDITIONAL READING:

MedQuarter Master Development Plan: http://www.themedquarter.com  /Handler.ashx?Item_ID=57BF8E7B-50EA-4663-914A-F83FCEB0AA0A

Chelsea Keenan, "MedQuarter Transformation Continues in Cedar Rapids," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 20 July 2014, http://thegazette.com/subject/life/health/medquarter-transformation-continues-in-cedar-rapids-20140720

My earlier posts:

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