Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cedar Rapids comprehensive plan

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz talks with open house attendees
at the National Czech and Slovak Museum Wednesday
Citizen reaction to Wednesday's Envision CR open houses probably depended more on one's frame of mind going in. If you'd just received a letter from your ex-wife's attorney notifying you that they were reopening alimony negotiations, and the dog threw up your phone just as you were leaving, and someone cut you off in traffic as you drove to the meeting, the displays probably seemed intentionally obscure and the plans suspicious. If you'd just acquired a handsome new bicycle, and the Sun broke through the clouds just as you stepped out of your home, and a little bird landed on your shoulder and mellifluously chirped the song you danced to at your senior prom, the displays and plans were evidence that exciting things are afoot in our town and the future is awesome.

Given that I'm as human as the next person--well, nearly so--and have my own personal frame of mind, I'm really not sure what I've just seen. Poster boards addressed a broad set of topics, including neighborhoods, corridors (seven main streets), physical growth, transportation and the economy. There were a lot of cryptic phrases that could be interpreted various ways, and a tendency to want to be all things to all people. (Here the city could have learned a lot from the MedQuarter SSMID, whose displays depicted specific examples for each possible idea.) City staff were on hand to offer explanations and answer questions (though the displays were not so digestible as to produce good questions). Few hands were tipped, but some potentially important principles were enunciated.

To begin with, there were a number of concepts articulated that could guide growth in a good way:

1. Choices in housing and transportation. The city says "We will adopt policies that create choices in housing types and prices throughout the city," and promises choices for all transportation users as well. Like most cities that saw their major development after World War II, Cedar Rapids is very house- and car-oriented: roads are built to be driven on, not walked or biked on, the bus system is rudimentary, and most people can't live near where they work. If they carry through on these promises, future city residents will have a greater array of choices in their lives. Whether this bus map was meant to be suggestive or illustrative of some policy makers' thinking, it depicts what would be a revolutionary change in the transit system.

2. Connections were mentioned a couple of times: connecting growing areas to existing areas, and connecting all areas of the city. The specific nature of the connections was not specified, but the principle is an important one if all are to share in our future prosperity.

3. A couple maps depicted an extensive network of trails and complete streets. This is ambitious and admirable. There were also maps of the Greenway parks planned along the west side of the river.

Given that many of the displays were cryptic, most of my questions would have been on the order of "What is this about?" Upon reflection, here are some better-framed questions:

1. What is a neighborhood? The city intends, among other things, to improve their quality and identity, establish neighborhood groups, and work with those groups to develop plans. Currently recognized neighborhoods include the historic, somewhat organic Mound View and Wellington Heights as well as a swath called "Near NW." There was also a graphic depicting neighborhoods developed pre- and post-World War II, accurate but of obscure purpose.

2. Are the seven main street corridors (1st Av E, Center Point Rd NE, Mt Vernon Rd SE, 6th St SW, Williams Blvd SW, 16th Av SW and Ellis Rd NW) intended to present a pleasant face to visitors or to provide commercial anchors for adjacent neighborhoods? I suppose we could aim at both, but which has priority? If the first, we're stressing auto thoroughfares with nicer landscapes. If the second, we're stressing commercial development and pedestrian safety.

3. Speaking of priorities, what do we think is most important for a healthy local economy? The city pledges, "We will grow a sustainable, diverse economy by supporting existing businesses, fostering entrepreneurship and targeting industry-specific growth," as well as attracting young professionals, providing cutting-edge training, and reinvesting in business corridors and districts. Does that leave anything we're not for? This umbrella is broad enough to include some time-tested cost-effective techniques as well as continuing to throw huge piles of cash at anyone with connections and a promise to create some random number of jobs.

Finally, what I didn't hear:

1. In choosing and implementing policies, will the city consider cost-effectiveness? As we grow will we consider the costs of building and maintaining sprawl, or will we just do it and give it away free because that's what some people and developers want? Some pro-business measures are cost-effective, some are giveaways.

2. How will the poor be connected and included? This won't happen automatically. There is far more profit margin in marketing to the rich than to the poor, and housing deemed "affordable" is also deemed a threat to property values. Is the city prepared to intentionally address these situations and resolve these conflicts?

3. How much would the metro area population need to grow in order to support the physical expansions we contemplate (areas shaded yellow in the map below)? Is this realistic, or just the dream of developers?

Ah, but it's fun to live in a city that is actively pondering its future. Probably the best attitude is that of veteran reporter Dale Kueter, who told Rick Smith (cited below) that he's seen plenty of comprehensive plans end up in the trash but wrote a bunch of comments anyway.

SOURCES

"EnvisionCR: A Comprehensive Plan for the City of Cedar Rapids," http://cedar-rapids.org/government/departments/community-development/city_planning/Pages/default.aspx

Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids Officials Unveil Envision CR," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 28 August 2014, http://thegazette.com/subject/news/cedar-rapids-officials-unveil-envisioncr-20140827

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