CEDAR RAPIDS — Julia and Tim Bickel have lived in numerous homes, from Michigan to Missouri; Illinois to Alaska and even in China, but chose to retire in a historic district in Cedar Rapids.
“That tells you that this neighborhood, to me, feels like home,” said Julia Bickel, 64. “It feels like the neighborhood where I was born.”
Their 1920s craftsman-style house had another benefit besides high ceilings, a large front porch and original oak woodwork that reminded Julia of her childhood home in Indiana.
She researched what a similar home would cost to buy new: about $500,000.
Their home, in the Second and Third Avenue Historic District, cost less than one-third of that amount.
The affordability of sites in the district also grabbed the attention of a developer who proposed a new housing complex for seniors there.
Richard Sova said properties in the nearby medical district, where he had hoped to build, were too expensive for the project: a three-story, 48-unit independent living facility.
Sova’s project was rejected by the City Planning Commission after he applied for needed rezoning, but the proposal drew attention to what is, and isn’t, allowed in the city’s two local historic districts.
The Redmond Park-Grande Avenue Historic District and the Second and Third Avenue district, which adjoin one-another in southeast Cedar Rapids, are both on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition, both were designated local landmark districts in 1999, which brings an added level of oversight and a type of neighborhood covenant that guides changes homeowners can make to the exterior of their homes.
Maura Pilcher, past chairwoman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and now a member of Save CR Heritage, called local landmarking “the most powerful tool that a city can use to protect its historic-built environment.”
Pilcher said the National Register protects historic sites only when federal funds or permits are used, but the two local landmark districts have guidelines that require historically sensitive development and design.
Limits and benefits
Homeowners in those two districts must obtain a certificate of appropriateness or certificate of no material effect before acquiring a building permit for any exterior work other than painting, including new construction.
For example, the Bickels had to get permission from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission when they sought to change windows in their home.
“We bought this place with our eyes wide open to that,” said Tim Bickel, 67.
Others might find the oversight restrictive — for example, vinyl siding generally isn’t permitted — but commission chairwoman Amanda McKnight Grafton said the rules are in place to protect owners’ investments in their property and ensure that others echo the same level of commitment to the neighborhood.
Benefits of living in the neighborhoods include access to grants, such as an exterior paint rebate offered by the city, and historic tax credits for renovation work on eligible buildings.
The National Register does not protect buildings from being demolished. In the last
12 months, one church that was on the register and another that was eligible for listing were razed in Cedar Rapids.
Being in a landmark district, however, does add a level of protection.
The Historic Preservation Commission would have to approve a request before demolition could proceed in the two local districts, although the matter could be appealed to the City Council.
Sova, president of Landover Corp., of Lake Barrington, Ill., said he has no intent to pursue his senior housing project in the historic district.
The Planning Commission denied his rezoning request before it came to the Historic Preservation Commission, but the plan involved a land swap that would have resulted in the demolition of five buildings; four of those in the historic district.
Landover’s project would have been built on a parking lot owned by St. Paul’s United Methodist Church at Third Avenue and 14th Street SE.
The church would have used the empty lots initially for parking, but eventually to build a gymnasium or otherwise expand, said Bill Pepper, who spoke on behalf of St. Paul’s at a preservation commission meeting last week.
Terry Bilsland, president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association, said the city should discourage proposals such as the senior housing project, which would increase population density in the neighborhood and counteract the neighborhood’s efforts.
“There’s too many people in too small of an area,” Bilsland said, citing former mansions carved into multiple apartments.
That adds cars to the street, impeding snow removal and other maintenance efforts, he said.
“For years, we’ve been trying to get the neighborhood back to where it was when it was built,” said Bilsland, 71, who has lived in his Seventh Avenue SE home for 43 years and whose grandparents lived in the area in the 1940s and 1950s. “We don’t need to plunk something down that doesn’t fit in the neighborhood.”