Sunday, March 1, 2015

Envisioning CR I: A 24-Hour Downtown?

"I'm gonna wake up in a city that never sleeps," sings Frank Sinatra (above) in his 1980 hit "New York, New York" (lyrics by Fred Ebb). That is one version of a 24-hour downtown--where the bars never close and the show never stops--but not the only one. No amount of planning is going to turn Cedar Rapids into Manhattan, and any effort to do so would be costly, ridiculous and futile.

Cedar Rapids can and should have a 24-hour downtown, though, if it means a place where people work, play and live. A surge of investment since the 2008 flood has brought an increase in occupied office space, restaurant and entertainment options, and condominium development from the pre-2008 era. (No numbers, sorry, just assumptions... but I'd be eternally grateful to anyone who has solid numbers.) Exciting parallel development is occurring about a mile to the south, in the New Bohemia district.

Prior to 2008 a fair number of people came downtown in the morning to work, and left in the late afternoon. And most days that would be it, until the next morning. Some nights there might be a show at the Five Seasons Center, Paramount Theater or TCR, which would bring a different crowd of people downtown for a few hours. The public library, not to be overlooked, was open til 9. But for much of the week, there wasn't a lot happening downtown. Which meant there wasn't a lot of reason to go downtown, most of the time, and that can lead to a vicious cycle of decreasing activity.

With enough people living downtown as well as working and attending events, there are always people out doing something. That adds to the energy of the area, which makes it an attractive place for people to go, and it adds to economic opportunities for businesses catering to all the people who are there at one time of day or another. Downtown Cedar Rapids has room to expand, too, with under-utilized space in the MedQuarter district to the east and the Taylor Area to the west (not to mention between downtown and New Bo), as well as planned development in Kingston Village across the river.

Given that one of the common criticisms of Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, as he struggles towards re-election this year, is that he's put resources into downtown and neglected neighborhoods, it's a fair question to ask why I'm focusing on downtown Cedar Rapids. Theoretically, an energized clustering of people could occur any place in town, right? (Or even in a "new town," like one of those New Urbanist developments.) I think there are three reasons everyone should care about downtown that apply to all municipalities:
  1. A city's downtown is the civic space shared by all metropolitan residents, assuming there exists such a space in the region at all.
  2. Downtown is where sustainable, walkable urbanism is most likely to occur of any place in the metropolitan area, because most of the infrastructure is already there
  3. Economic success in such a compact area is more sustainable through the dips and sways of the economic cycle.
In Cedar Rapids, specifically, there's a fourth reason: the devastation of 2008 left a lot of room for infill development. I'm not saying we should rebuild with the naïve assumption that it will never flood again, but surely future flood dangers can be accommodated in building design.

EnvisionCR, the master plan the city adopted last month, doesn't have much to say specifically about downtown. But there are encouraging signs in other plans that have been developed for districts adjacent to downtown, such as Kingston Village and MedQuarter. While the content of the MedQuarter plan is more focused on out-of-town visitors than potential residents, which could lead to a real missed opportunity, the promising Kingston Village plan includes single family housing towards the south end, near 8th Avenue (see map, pp. 19-20). The plan states (p. 22):

The broad land-use designation identified for Kingston Village as a part of this study is that of a mixed-use neighborhood, where the key venues of daily life – places to live, shop, work, play and learn – are within easy reach of one another. A successful mixed-use neighborhood will provide choices for its residents and an aesthetic and energy that will draw visitors. It will accommodate mixed-incomes and purposefully include a variety of appropriate uses within walkable distances and consider the necessary density required to foster lively streets.
Yes! That's got it! This is a gospel I'd like to see spread around to the other edges of downtown.

Two things remain somewhat unclear for downtown's future direction. It isn't clear what the city can do to encourage a more well-rounded downtown, or how highly that rates on the list of priorities. Currently downtown is heavy on upscale restaurants and condominiums. A well-rounded downtown would have a variety of jobs, attractions and housing for people of various ages, income levels and family situations. To that end, the downtown area could use some basic stores (grocery, hardware, e.g.), and for families, a school and a park with a playground. Greene Square Park is ideally located between the public library and the art museum, but the renovation proposal seems better oriented for a showpiece ("Look at the size of that gol dang art installation!") than for a place for children to play.

Secondly, can the city find developers willing to buy into the vision? A city's plans are at the mercy of the market forces of supply (by house developers and builders) and demand (by homebuyers), and for suppliers profit margins remain highest for large lot subdivisions on the edge of town. I'm sure there are developers salivating at the positive externalities they presume will come from the construction of the Highway 100 extension. Cities that want to promote sustainable, walkable urbanity often need to reach out to specific developers who share that inclination. (California blogger Dave Alden notes cities can adjust builders' impact fees so they're higher on the suburban fringe and lower in the urban core. I didn't even know "impact fees" existed, so good on you, Dave.) So far, though, so good: Besides a number of condominium projects underway downtown and in Kingston Village, there are some single family dwellings--row houses? well, all right--under construction on 2nd St SW.
Once occupied, these new houses will add to the vitality of downtown...
...and land is being sold for more here..., why not here?
Another possibility for long-term residence is the land that has been cleared for the (as yet unapproved by the State of Iowa) casino. The all-in-one pod that had been proposed would not have been at all integrated into its surroundings; some houses and small shops would be better, I think. Here I'm very much with Alex Ihnen, who argues on the NextStL blog that multi-million dollar big projects will do less for St. Louis than organic development.

And we could save this older house, which the city for some reason intends to tear down if they can't find someone to move it.

(Next: Including the poor.)


Dave Alden, "Changing the Ground Rules to Cease Subsidizing Sprawl," Where Do We Go From Here?, 2 March 2015,

Cindy Hadish, "Late-1800s Home Needs to Be Moved or Faces Demolition on Cedar Rapids Casino Site," Save CR Heritage, 20 February 2015,

Alex Ihnen, "What's the Final Price Tag on a Vibrant Downtown St. Louis?," NextStL, 2 March 2015,

Alena Samuels, "Why Are Developers Still Building Sprawl?" City Lab, 24 February 2015,

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