Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Thinking big in Cedar Rapids

Representatives from two groups planning substantial projects designed to benefit the City of Cedar Rapids appeared at a 1 Million Cups event Wednesday morning, which by possible coincidence was also the 100th anniversary of the birth of ur-urbanist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006).

Jacobs's best-known work is her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has inspired many an urbanist. She wrote it while living in New York, part of her resistance to uber-planner Robert Moses's uber-plans for the city which involved leveling large parts of her neighborhood, Greenwich Village. She argues, based on extensive observations, that what contributes to the life of cities is an organic type of development that emerges over time from countless individual actions and interactions. The grand schemes of urban planners, however well-intentioned, often contribute to cities' death by creating barriers to life-sustaining interactions like wide streets, massive housing projects, and parks that are isolated and scary.

It's a long book, and a complex argument, but very readable, and apart from a few archaisms very contemporary. If you haven't read it, you should, and what better day than her 100th anniversary to make that resolution?

Jacobs's vision has inspired many an urbanist, whose tasks now are not so much to protect vibrant but threatened urban neighborhoods but somehow to bring back to life places that have suffered from the suburban model of development. In Cedar Rapids, as in towns across the land, the inclination is to jump-start life through "home run" style projects that promise instant (and surely inflated) job creation, along with attractive amenities and, heaven help us, green space. Up-front costs to government are sold as WORTH IT, and long-term infrastructure costs are ignored. The new Westdale Mall is an infamous local example; the downtown casino project that was nixed by the State of Iowa seemed like another; and I'm dubious about the baseball complex and the waterpark planned for different edges of town.

David Tominsky introduces the speakers
The two projects presented Wednesday are more modest in scope, and promise not so much heroically to save the day as to facilitate the re-creation of those connections that Jacobs said sustained the life of the city. A lot depends on how they are carried out, and so, standing firmly on both sides of the fence, I present optimistic and pessimistic scenarios for each. In doing so, I assume as many have argued (see Smith, cited below, for a recent example) that the future of the city lies in reinhabiting its core and not in low-density development at the edges.


What: 55 square blocks east of downtown, governed by a Self-Supporting Municipal Improvement District, bookended by two hospitals. Hospitals, clinics and assorted other businesses currently employ 8000 people. And parking. A great deal of parking.
The current MedQuarter; parking areas in gray
Goals: To become a nationally-recognized medical destination, on the model if not the scale of Rochester, Minnesota. To leverage the medical assets into commercial, neighborhood and workforce development.

Optimistic scenario: Development creates an important connection between what's happening downtown and in New Bohemia and the core neighborhoods of Oakhill-Jackson and Wellington Heights. This proves a source of sustenance for downtown and New Bo. Work force housing gets built. Expanded employment opportunities create vibrant, diverse neighborhoods that in turn sustain street life and local businesses. Maybe even: Density gradually replaces the current ridiculous oversupply of parking, while visitors are accommodated by local circulator buses that provide easy transportation between clinics and other local sites.

Pessimistic scenario: The big boys--the hospitals and Physicians Clinic of Iowa--get the space they want to expand. Nothing else gets done, because there's no institution desirous or capable of carrying it out. With priorities on security and adequate parking, the area continues to be a barrier between downtown and core neighborhoods--which then continue to suffer from disinvestment and lack of opportunity (arguably worse than gentrification). The greenway along 4th Avenue, created by clearing out older housing, is never used because there's no place to go. The banners fade, and someone realizes "in the Q" means "standing in line."

Destination Cedar Rapids
Much of these developments are planned for areas that were flooded in 2008
What: Coming together of multiple projects along the Cedar River, including development of Cedar Lake, the 3rd Street Corridor downtown, recreational development of the former Sinclair Meatpacking property, and Czech Village, planned over the next five years. Specific projects include reconstruction of a rail bridge across the river south of New Bo for recreation, development of housing and shopping east of New Bo, and a multi-use park at the end of 3rd Street.

Goals: To promote Cedar Rapids as a tourist-recreational destination, where residents and visitors can have a "Wow" day. In the words of former Parks Commissioner Dale Todd (below), one of the presenters on behalf of the project, "This community has to grow. We can no longer be where we're at."

Optimistic scenario: The single brand provides some synergy to the different projects, and helps them all get done. These developments attract businesses and families to the city center, and the density helps sustain a vibrant core. The park adds an important feature for young families who are currently not well-served by downtown, and helps spur housing growth. Infill growth helps make city services more efficient, adding to the general satisfaction. Future floods do minimal damage, thanks to far-sighted design.

Pessimistic scenario: Efforts to provide "Wow" days overlook the organic growth needed to sustain the area over time. Cooperation that looks good on paper is harder in practice, and gives way to rivalry. At least some projects get done, but return on investment falls well short of substantial costs. People agree that the projects are nice places to visit, but prefer to live elsewhere. Eventually they find some other, newer cool places to go. The banners fade, businesses close, projects age, and start to look dowdy.

The Med Quarter and Destination Cedar Rapids plans are at a reasonable scale. How they play out depends on whether the private interests supporting them are compatible with the overall good of the city, and how well they contribute to organic development as opposed to being ends in themselves--in other words, how well they fit into Jane Jacobs's vision of what sustains life in a city.

 Thomas Campanella, "Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning," Places, April 2011,
 Nolan Gray, "Who Plans? Jane Jacobs' Hayekian Critique of American Planning," Strong Towns, 4 May 2016,
 Story Hinckley, "Jane Jacobs: What Would the Urban Visionary Think of U.S. Cities Today?" Christian Science Monitor, 4 May 2016,
 Noah Smith, "Want Economic Growth? Try Urban Density," Bloomberg View, 3 May 2016,

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