Developers travel to Des Moines for downtown housing inspiration

Some question whether to convert Cedar Rapids office space into housing projects

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March 28, 2014 | 5:02 pm

DES MOINES When it comes to developing downtown housing in Cedar Rapids, some people have decided to look to Des Moines for a bit of inspiration.

A group of developers, architects and city employees toured five downtown Des Moines housing projects Monday to get a feel for what types of housing are missing in Cedar Rapids, said Scott Olson, a registered architect and broker associate with Skogman Commercial Group.

Olson, a member of the Cedar Rapids City Council, also is chairman of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance downtown housing committee.

During their trip, the group viewed owner-occupied brownstone condominiums, high-end lofts in a newly-constructed building, market-rate lofts built in a converted warehouse, micro apartments that are about 450 square feet, and income-restricted units leased specifically to artists.

Downtown Des Moines has seen a housing boom in the last few years with about 300 new units under construction and another 700 in the planning stages, according to Glenn Lyons, president and CEO of the Downtown Community Alliance, a Des Moines economic development group. There are about 8,000 people who live downtown.

While on the tour, the group quizzed Des Moines developers and property managers on funding sources secured for the projects, demographics of those living downtown, what amenities are offered in each building, and how easily property managers were able to fill the space.

They found that downtown workers and young professionals are the primary groups opting to live in downtown Des Moines, while many of the new projects are converted office buildings and warehouse space. But Cedar Rapids needs to find a bit of a different mix to make downtown housing work, Olson said.

There are about 70,000 downtown workers in Des Moines compared with about 15,000 in downtown Cedar Rapids. The city also doesn't have as many buildings that can be converted into housing, Olson said.

"We do have a lot of empty office space," he said. "So the question is 'Should we be considering converting some of that into housing?'"

The tour came on the heels of an urban living study conducted by the Economic Alliance, which asked interested parties what amenities, price ranges and services would be needed for them to consider living downtown. Sarika Bhakta, Metro Alliance district improvement specialist, said results are still being compiled.

The Economic Alliance also is collecting data from existing downtown housing, including occupancy rates and demographics of those living here, Bhakta said.

"This information gives those who are developing projects a sense or idea of what's needed," she said.

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