Thursday, May 28, 2015

Envision CR IV: Neighborhood stores

Is this corner in need of a store?
One of the critical factors in whether people walk at all is whether there are places to walk to. This hit home to me last summer while I was investigating how people used Redmond Park on Cedar Rapids's southeast side. I was interested in whether the busy three-lane one-way 3rd Avenue served as a barrier to park use. It didn't, but what really impressed me is how many people I saw walking from the surrounding neighborhood through the park, across 3rd Avenue, and then across 1st Avenue to Hy-Vee Food Store. Hy-Vee itself isn't constructed in a pedestrian-friendly way--whether coming from Mound View or Wellington Heights, any pedestrian has to make their way across several lanes of parking lot--but it is impelling enough to get people to walk, across the parking lot and all those busy streets.

1st Avenue Hy-Vee
Neighborhood stores--small-scale operations located in residential areas--have pretty much disappeared from American towns and cities, but before World War II they were plentiful in any populous community. Historian Mark Stoffer-Hunter refers to Scolaro's on 1st Av and 29th St NE as "one of the many small grocery stores that served the people living nearby" (Henry and Hunter 2005: 54). When poet Paul Engle (1908-1991) was in high school, he worked at a drug store a couple blocks from his home:
I spent seven hours a day, seven days a week, for seven dollars a week, in that little place crammed with drugs, lotions, tonics, tobacco, candy, ice cream, ointments, soft drinks, writing papers, newspapers, magazines, and the row of pumps with their many flavors called a soda fountain.... Now, of course, the drugstore culture has deteriorated--real drugs instead of a soda fountain! (Engle 1996: 36; similar reminiscences from Kingsport, Tennessee, in Stallard 2008)
The Paul Engle Center for Community Arts is in the former pharmacy building
The last two of the neighborhood groceries depicted by Henry and Hunter, the Food Center Neighborhood Grocery Store and Merklin's Cash Grocery, closed in the 1970s. By the time we moved to Cedar Rapids in 1989, two independent groceries operated nearby, both in strip malls; both closed within two years. Even the 1st Av Hy-Vee nearly closed in 2000, saved only by a $1 million grant from the city.

Today our city's groceries and pharmacies are mostly large, with some ethnic groceries in strip malls, and two recently-arrived gourmet groceries (Fresh Market and New Pioneer Co-op). Two Super Wal-Marts and two Super Targets also have grocery and pharmacy sections. None is particularly easy to walk to from any residential neighborhood, though the 1st Av and Oakland Road Hy-Vees aren't bad if you don't mind hustling around parking cars. And then there are the convenience stores, mostly attached to gasoline stations, the closest thing we have to the small, neighborhood stores of yore, but hardly the same breed of cat.

Jim's Foods, in a strip mall on 6th St SW, has survived by shifting to a convenience store model
The size of grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, &c. has expanded along with everything else in America. A visit to the supermarket provides a breadth of selection that would stagger my grandparents, at prices (thanks to economies of scale, among other things) that enable me to eat (and shave, block the sun, and do simple home repairs) in the style of a king. So why not just declare victory and move on to the next topic?

Because neighborhood stores have benefits, benefits that are widely touted, such that they appear on some level to be merit goods. Their presence reduces auto use and increases walking, increases the number of community-building interactions both in the store and on the way, and adds to the attraction of the area (Duany et al. 2000: 187-188; Jacobs 1961: 36-37; Mitchell 2009). Locally-owned stores, as opposed to mini-Targets or Wal-Marts, keep the profits in the community. From these direct benefits spring secondary benefits too numerous to list in a reasonable post. In particular, it's hard to imagine recent walkable-scale, residential development in downtown Cedar Rapids and the nearby areas of Kingston and New Bohemia succeeding for long without stores where life's necessities can be purchased.

Benefits or not, any reappearance of neighborhood stores faces serious hurdles. As urban areas sprawled in the latter half of the 20th century, people moved far away from shopping and work. Hunter and Henry note that the Fifth Avenue Market and Grocery once had over 100 houses nearby, almost all of which have been torn down (p. 55). Residences may now be too widely dispersed to support a small neighborhood store. Functional zoning means commercial and residential uses are kept apart: neighborhood over here, stores over there. Even where zoning ordinances permit mixed-uses, residents are often hostile to the idea of inviting corner stores into their neighborhoods. Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck explain:
[W]hat the neighbors are picturing instead is a Quick Mart: an aluminum and glass flat-topped building bathed in fluorescent light, surrounded by asphalt, and topped by a glowing plastic sign. It's not that these people don't need convenient access to orange juice and cat food like everyone else; they just know that the presence of a Quick Mart nearby will make their environment uglier and their property values lower.... The building type of this corner store is essentially the same as the town houses next to it: two stories high, three windows wide, built of brick, and situated directly against the sidewalk, which its entrance faces. One could imagine it may even have been a town house once, so well does it blend in among its neighbors. [2000: 26-27]
Finally, there is the business plan question: Can neighborhood stores make a profit when most people can drive to a supermarket with wider selection and (I'm guessing) lower prices? I did some furtive price comparison today on a "market basket" of breakfast items, with these results:

Supermarket (large store)
Supermarket (small semi-walkable store)
Posh market
½ gal skim milk
Orange juice (12 oz conc or 48 oz bottle)
Sandwich bread (24 oz)
Name brand wheat flakes cereal (10.9 oz)
One dozen large eggs
Oranges (1 lb)

Maybe I picked the wrong c-store? Anyway, it shows that the farther you get from the suburban supermarket model the more prices go up, and for anyone with a car that can be a deciding factor. So does the same logic apply to a corner store?

Duany and colleagues suggest that developers not only include corner stores, but provide the space rent-free because the store makes an attractive amenity yet "should not be expected to turn a profit until the neighborhood matures" (2000: 187). But that applies to new development, and doesn't analogize well to existing neighborhoods.
Highway 100 extension, from; can we sprawl our way to neighborhood stores?
What does the city's master plan adopted in January, Envision CR, say about corner stores? Specifically, nothing--the phrase is never used. The "Grow CR" section describes a "mixed land use pattern," but the specific example of "housing above commercial and office establishments" (p. 55) means apartments downtown, not corner stores in neighborhoods. On the future land use map (p. 67), much of the new development anticipated around the Highway 100 extension is expected to be "urban-medium intensity;" some areas, mostly around downtown, are "urban-high intensity;" and most of the existing city is "urban-low intensity." That means that established neighborhoods can expect little change, but at the edge of town newer developments--if they occur--could see "neighborhood retail or mixed use" included on "any street provided a smooth transition in intensity of uses is maintained" (p. 69). That opaque language may be all we should expect, and maybe it even intends all we could hope for, but the specific reference to "mixed-use" at the new, improved Westdale (p. 82)--it will include a bit of senior housing--is hardly encouraging. I'd like to see more affirmation of the concept, and more expressed flexibility in how all areas of the city develop over time, but I understand that creating too much uncertainty could create panic.


Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point, 10th anniversary ed, 2010)

Paul Engle, A Lucky American Childhood (University of Iowa Press, 1996)

George T. Henry and Mark W. Hunter, Cedar Rapids: Downtown and Beyond (Arcadia, 2005)

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961)

Stacy Mitchell, "Neighborhood Stores: An Overlooked Strategy for Fighting Global Warming," Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 19 August 2009,

"Neighborhood Store,", ... their definition, oriented to specialty stores, is too restrictive for our purposes

Kenny Stallard, "Neighborhood Stores," Memories from the Past, 2008[?],

Envisioning CR I: A 24-hour downtown, 1 March 2015
Envisioning CR II: Including the poor, 17 March 2015
Envisioning CR III: Improve public transportation, 6 April 2015

NEXT: Regional governance.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Cycling update

Spreading the word and passing out swag at the pit stop, Bike to Work Week 2015
Protected bike lanes are coming to Iowa! When Cedar Rapids's 3rd Avenue is converted from one-way to two-way, part of an ongoing re-orientation of downtown streets, it will include bike lanes along the curb, with parallel auto parking between the bike lane and the traffic lane. This graphic was shared at the trail pit stop at 4th St and 1st Av during Bike-to-Work Week:

The array will run about a mile, from 2nd St SE to 6th St SW. The goal is to encourage more people to ride bicycles by creating a greater feeling of safety. There's even a narrow buffer zone between the parking and the bike lane; I doubt it's wide enough to prevent dooring, but it might give the rider a bit of warning. Anyhow the unusual placement of parking spaces might remind auto travelers to look before they open their doors. At least it provides some room if the driver's aim is off when putting the car in the parking space.

The left turn boxes (lower right of the graphic) would help keep bikes out of heavy traffic when turning. I'm guessing they might not be all that necessary in light traffic, and might not appeal to our more aggressive bicyclists anyhow.
I approve of the incremental approach to bicycling infrastructure in Cedar Rapids. It makes sense that before you stripe the entire city, or dump a vat of green paint, or buffer all the bike lanes, that you would do it in a small space first to see how it works. If only we'd done this with urban renewal, or interstate highways, or multipurpose sports stadiums... Which metrics to use when assessing the buffered bike lanes might be a tricky issue. Do we count bike riders on 3rd Av (and do we have a baseline)? Car-bike interactions? Public approval?

I first heard of protected bike lanes happening in Bogota, Colombia, as featured in the documentary "Urbanized." A spin around the Internet finds them installed or planned in ChicagoColumbus, Honolulu, Little Rock...

Little Rock: Bike lanes protected by parking
...Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Seattle and a host of other cities... though not yet in Newark, Delaware, or, until now, in Iowa. The buzz about protected bike lanes is mostly happy, as you'd expect from results tilted towards biking advocacy--there do not seem to be any blogs yet on "Why Can't Everyone Just Drive Like Normal People?" (perhaps because Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is too busy). Reporter Angie Schmitt noting protected bike lanes have been associated with less auto speeding, fewer crashes, more cycling, increased retail sales along the routes, and eventually widespread public support, with--counterintuitively--no increase in auto travel times or congestion despite the reduction in traffic lanes. Protected bike lanes may take some getting used to, but I think they'll be worth it.

VIDEO: "Protected Bike Lanes 101" by People for Bikes

"Bike Lanes," National Association of City Transportation Officials,

"Protected Bike Lanes--Update 04.01.15," People for Bikes,

Angie Schmitt, "The Rise of the North American Protected Bike Lane," Momentum, 31 July 2013,

Jim Williams, "City Introduces New Curb-Protected Bike Lanes," CBS2, 19 May 2015, contains a few discouraging words

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A win for today; a strategy for the future?

The way we lay out our communities can really be evaluated in terms of how well do they do moving us on that continuum from strangers towards friends--REV ERIC O JACOBSEN

The Methodist preacher will offend you not/He's raising money for a parking lot--GARRISON KEILLOR

Save CR Heritage, our local historic preservation organization, held a press conference yesterday morning at Westminster Presbyterian Church to announce the results of complicated negotiations to save a historic house.

The "Frankie House," built in 1896, sits agedly in the way of Westminster's parking lot expansion.

Westminster Church itself was built in 1904, with several additions since.

The deal, which my sources credit to persistent shuttle diplomacy by Beth De Boom and Emily Meyer of Save CR Heritage, starts with Save CR Heritage moving the house--with labor donated by D.W. Zinser Co.--to a lot on 5th Ave SE currently used as a community garden by the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association. The garden will move to nearby property currently owned by Affordable Housing Network, Inc. Save CR Heritage will renovate and sell the house, and Wellington Heights will have some new neighbors. Pastor Emory Gillespie of Westminster, Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association president Justin Wasson, AHNI executive director Renie Neuberger and Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer-Hunter also described how the arrangement furthered their goals.

My friend John Shaw, who's on the Historic Preservation Commission in Iowa City, describes preservation efforts as one win for every twenty you lose. By that standard, saving the Frankie House is not only a win but well worth celebrating. On top of that, it raises hopes that a similar deal can be worked out to save a nearby neighborhood landmark that reportedly stands in the way of another church's parking expansion.
Habitat for Humanity volunteers work on historic Wellington Heights home (from SaveCRHeritage Facebook page)
So let's pop a cork and drink to saving CR's heritage!

This happy outcome should buy some time for neighborhood residents, institutions and preservationists to think about a long-term strategy for urban neighborhoods. The one sour note yesterday was sounded by Stoffer-Hunter, a brilliant and assiduous historian. He didn't dwell on it, and I don't know if he even intended to be sour, but while discussing the story of the Frankie house's construction (for a local physician whose family included a 4-year-old boy named Frankie) and the original details that survived...

...Stoffer-Hunter noted there is "a lot of great history on this block," including the childhood home of Mamie Doud Eisenhower. Moving the Frankie House preserves this historic home but leaves another "tooth" missing on this historic block.

The mania for flattening neighborhoods into parking lots arises when institutional needs for expansion push into the neighborhoods where they settled years ago. In recent years, Coe College, Mercy Hospital, Physicians Clinic of Iowa, St. Luke's Hospital and St. Paul's United Methodist Church have also expanded their footprint. Now, St. Paul's and Westminster churches are at one end of a two-mile-long parking crater that stretches from Coe to the edge of the New Bohemia district. All this surface parking leaves neighborhoods with missing teeth, struggling neighbors with less connection to economic opportunity, and an overall loss of walkability and vibrancy in the area.

Rev. Eric O. Jacobsen, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington, notes that Christians tend not to think about physical environment, thinking that access to cars, high-tech communications, and social groups make location irrelevant. His recent book, The Space Between (cited below), is both an introduction to urbanism aimed at Christians, and a call for Christians to become active in improving the "space between" where they live and where they attend church. When the built environment treats humans with dignity, it improves their lives, their relationships, and their opportunities. Individual civic virtue, and social capital, are framed by Jacobsen as examples of "common grace," blessings from God that may be bestowed upon both Christians and non-Christians.

Faith communities (churches, in the Christian vernacular) have a stake in whether or not the neighborhoods in which they are located are built on a human-scale or for automobiles. Human-scale neighborhoods treat people with dignity and encourage participation in common life. Jacobsen classifies churches as embedded (built in ways that facilitate direct connections with the community that surrounds them) or insular (oriented toward people driving cars). It's not strictly time-based, but embedded churches are typical of traditional neighborhood development, while insular churches reflect the auto-driven development common in America since World War II. Note, particularly if you're not religious and are losing interest, that while Jacobsen focuses on Christian churches, a similar logic could apply to colleges and universities, hospitals, grocery stores, coffeehouses, bars, and even office buildings.

Rev. Gillespie noted yesterday that Westminster made a specific commitment 15 years ago to remain in Wellington Heights. Their outreach includes a Kids Closet and the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, both of which surely provide lifelines to individuals on the edge, as well as participation in the Family Promise homeless ministry. But Jacobsen's work suggests institutions can go beyond seeing their neighborhoods only as opportunities for charitable work, but as parishes--places in which they live and which they can help build.

How can institutions engage with each other, and with city government, to make their neighborhoods better places? Jacobsen and the urbanists argue for greater attention to the built environment, particularly the oft-underrated contribution it makes to individual and social life. For a long time, Wellington Heights has been treated as a neighborhood to drive through, rather than as a place where people live--witness the speedways that 2nd and particularly 3rd Avenues have become--though the 2013 passage of a neighborhood plan indicates the city is taking a more positive approach. Can institutions lend their weight to returning Wellington Heights to its historic status as a walkable neighborhood connected to economic opportunity?

The first thing anyone will notice with a parish approach is that expanding surface parking areas doesn't help places. As institutions try to grow, are there alternative approaches to parking issues that are compatible with successful places (particularly for churches who are near their parking capacity about one hour a week at most)? What about encouraging members to park in unused commercial lots or on the street? What about working with the city to institute public transit service on Sundays?


Cindy Hadish, "Save CR Heritage Announces Collaborative Effort to Save Historic Home," Save CR Heritage, 13 May 2015,

Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic, 2012)

Rick Smith, "Save CR Heritage Will Save One Itself," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 14 May 2015, 8A

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Garfield School celebrates 100 years

Garfield School
Two Cedar Rapids schools celebrated 100 years of existence today. Arthur School, 2630 B Av NE, and Garfield School, 1201 Maplewood Dr NE, both were built in 1914 and began classes in the 1915-16 school year. I celebrated with Garfield, where my boys went to school, and where I've been able to continue my relationship as a classroom volunteer. Both schools continue to anchor residential neighborhoods, although their attendance areas--particularly Arthur's--are quite large.

Principal Joy Long did the morning announcements outside,
as the entire student body assembled
Flag raising by the 5th grade Girl Scout troop,
followed by the Pledge of Allegiance
Nancy Raue (left) attended Garfield and has taught there since 1989.
That's her VW. Based on the sign, she must have been Honorary Principal for the day.
Even President Garfield was celebrating!

Main festivities were scheduled after school
...including a hot dog supper...

...and a brief, well-attended program in the gym.
Principal Joy Long kicks off the program
A number of students present and past returned for the event, including one fellow who'd attended Garfield in 1936. At the evening program, former principal Rick Netolicky [right in picture above] emceed, paying tribute to his valuable secretary Chris Gochenour, as well as inviting past and present teachers and staff to stand and be recognized. Mayor Ron Corbett [center left] proclaimed today to be Garfield School Day in Cedar Rapids; of course, he also proclaimed it to be 2017, so take that how you will. Historian Mark Stoffer-Hunter [far left] recalled the origins of the school, pointing out the unique Egyptian columns at the main entryway. Current principal Joy Long dedicated a reading cart in memory of former secretary Kris Cessna, who died in 2013.

Hardwood features of the classrooms (here, room 106) give them an old-fashioned vibe
Buildings like Garfield, the stories they have to tell, and the good service they still do, are testimony to worthiness of historic structures in cities like Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids Community School District, "Arthur and Garfield Celebrate Centennial Birthdays,"
Cindy Hadish, "Garfield and Arthur Schools to Celebrate 100th Anniversaries," Save CR Heritage,

Garfield's playground was re-constructed in, I think, 2003

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess i...