Saturday, September 6, 2014

Indulging in urban fantasy

Last weekend was Labor Day, which is the occasion for the annual Mayors' Bike Ride through Cedar Rapids. I wrote about that last year. Registration for the ride was down, from 456 in 2013 to 359 in 2014, and from five mayors to three, maybe due to somewhat unsettled weather.

Again this year, I volunteered for the Linn County Trails Association, and for the second year in a row was stationed at the intersection of 3rd Av and 10th St SE. I got there in plenty of time, and so while I waited for riders to guide I took the measure of my surroundings (and, of course, chatted up the talking traffic light).

Two corners of the intersection are occupied by historic church buildings:
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which dates from 1914 (the parish building next door is even older, says Cedar Rapids megahistorian Mark Stouffer-Hunter)...
...and First Lutheran Church (ELCA), which dates from 1910. This might have been a dangerous intersection at which to hang out during the Reformation, but that was 500 years ago and everyone seems to have moved on.

The other corners are more typical of this part of the city: parking lots. Granted this was Labor Day, so their emptiness was explainable, but the area known as the MedQuarter has a decided surplus of parking, much of it of the surface variety. This amateur photograph is intended to show the medley of parking lots that is 10th Street, where hardly anything exists between Immaculate Conception and Mercy Hospital several blocks away.

3rd Avenue is similar, broken up only slightly by some older rental housing:
 
I turned first to the smaller parking lot in the 1000 block of 3rd. To the right in the picture is a medical building on 4th Av., to the left Margaret Bock Housing, a low income housing unit associated with the Ecumenical Community Center.
This looked to me like a location for a neighborhood general store. There is a snacks-and-gas convenience store a couple blocks away, but the nearest place to get basic necessities like groceries is about a mile farther up. This would be handy not only for residents of this side of the Wellington Heights neighborhood, but for any new development closer to downtown.

Speaking of which...
Photo taken on Labor Day
The same space, on an actual work day (next Monday shortly after 9 a.m.)
I was eying the surface parking lot across 3rd Av from Immaculate Conception for small houses. I measured it off at 120 of my paces (at least I think it was 120... my puckish traffic light friend kept trying to mess me up by counting backward from 13). If that makes 360 feet, you could put 6-8 modest houses along here. You'd have the makings of a little neighborhood, whose residents would have easy access to jobs at the medical complexes, downtown businesses, and any other small establishments that this growth might inspire. We're a ways from schools, except for McKinley Middle School (and Coe College), and from Redmond Park, although plans are afoot to develop Greene Square Park into a place to play.

Why fantasize about mixed-use, dense development in this area? A residential presence around downtown will add to its commercial and psychic vitality, particularly in the long run when the current newness wears off. Building small houses and stores will add to the diversity of available residences--the emerging stock is tilting to condos--and thus the diversity of people who can live there. People who live close to work and basic shopping are less car-dependent, so that they (and the city) are more resilient in the face of future uncertainties about energy and municipal fiscal health. Developing the area between downtown and Wellington Heights will do a better job of connecting current residents of this historic core neighborhood to the economic and cultural opportunities developing in downtown.

How does this fantasy come to reality? Certainly not just by wishing and hoping. Most of the initiative has to come from the private sector. The city government can lay the groundwork by creating the infrastructure necessary for this to happen. 3rd Avenue currently is a one-way street designed to funnel cars out of town. It should be made two-way, and as wide as it is could accommodate buffers between bike lanes and parking. I'd like to see 10th Street narrowed, too, to one lane each way. (The MedQuarter plan calls for it to remain a two-lane truck route, and I suppose the trucks have to go somewhere, but that makes the street a boundary rather than a connection.) Any zoning laws--the area is currently zoned C-3 and O/S--that prevent walkable urban-style development should be relaxed or repealed.

Everything else depends on the emergence in the marketplace of willing buyers and suppliers. If downtown continues to develop successfully, that success would bubble outward. If the planned improvements to MedQuarter develop in a way that is friendly to outsiders--Physicians Clinic of Iowa would need to give up some of its surplus of parking, for instance--that would provide space where urban development could occur. The combination would provide "impelling form" to draw others who want to live and/or open businesses in the area. Development might present an obstacle: infill is by definition piecemeal, and surely doesn't offer the profit margins that large-lot suburban development or big-box buildings do. Can the public sector facilitate these decisions? Subsidies would get expensive, and can be abused... maybe a mix of recruitment and information provision?

SOURCES

Cindy Hadish, "Greene Square Park Moving Into the Future in Downtown Cedar Rapids with New Design," Homegrown Iowan, 28 August 2014, http://homegrowniowan.com/greene-square-park-moving-into-the-future-in-downtown-cedar-rapids-with-new-design-plan-retains-some-historical-elements/

Brad Mullin, "Thumbs Up for the 2014 Mayors' Bike Ride," Linn County Trails Association, 1 September 2014

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

Steve Schultis, "You Lying Cherry Picker... Part Two," Rational Urbanism, 1 September 2014, http://rationalurbanism.com/you-lying-cherry-picker-part-two/ [on the lack of readily-available alternatives to suburban housing]

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