It’s hard to imagine that Cedar Rapids will look as different in 2014 as it came to look in 2013.
After all, the year that ended last night was a landscape-changing one fueled by an infusion of public-sector flood-recovery dollars. Those dollars helped bring to life a new library, central fire station, convention center, riverfront amphitheater, public works building and animal shelter as well as a renovated hotel, arena and bus depot.
All those facilities opened in 2013.
Even so, Mayor Ron Corbett promises that Cedar Rapids is not about to jog in place.
The city’s private sector, he said, is continuing to step up and invest in the city as the city now largely has recovered from the flood of 2008.
“It was a jammed packed year,” Corbett said of 2013. “The list of accomplishments is long, and many of them will have a long-lasting impact. Not just in Cedar Rapids, but for the region.”
“Momentum is hard to get, but it’s easy to lose,” he continued. “The momentum of 2013 will carry us well into 2014. It’s an exciting time.”
The prospects for change in Cedar Rapids in 2014 have been fueled in significant ways by local voters, who went to the polls in March 2013 to approve casino gaming and in November 2013 to OK the extension of the local-option sales tax to fix city streets.
The coming year also promises to bring a start to two high-cost projects that seemed as if they never would come to be. One is the long-delayed the construction of the Highway 100 extension, the other the long-awaited rescue and transformation of the failing Westdale Mall.
CONSTRUCTION STARTS ON $200-MILLION HIGHWAY 100 EXTENSION
City and local business leaders have been pushing for the long-delayed construction of the Highway 100 extension project for well over a decade, and major construction on the $200-million project begins in 2014. Bids on the new bridge over the Cedar River, which is part of the 7.5-mile project, are slated to be opened in early 2014 on what will be a multi-year project.
Clearing and grading to the Cedar River will be the first visible signs of the project’s start. The extension will take Highway 100 from Edgewood Road NE west and south to Highway 30. The entire road should be open by 2020.
WESTDALE MALL TRANSFORMATION BEGINS
The $90 million-plus transformation of Westdale Mall into a Westdale community with anchor stores Younkers and J.C. Penney and new retail storefronts, offices, housing and a hotel starts with much demolition, which is now slated to start in the early part of 2014.
Developer John Frew had hoped to start the project last summer, but an entanglement with J.C. Penney’s existing lease postponed and even threatened the project. Frew reported to the City Council in December that he’s now ready to proceed.
The council reworked its incentive package, which will allow the developer to forego property taxes on the new investment for 14 years, up from 12 years.
FLOOD PROTECTION SYSTEM IS COMING
Residents will stop doubting in 2014 that the city will build a new flood protection system to bolster both sides of the river from a flood like the historic 2008 one.
With $264 million in state funding support now in place and with Congress looking to provide additional federal help, the city will begin a first phase in 2014 of its multiphase construction plan. The city will use a $9 million federal grant already in hand for the first phase, which will raise Quaker Co.’s flood protection wall higher to the 2008 flood level.
The city also is expected to look to invest to design west-side flood protection, which the Army Corps of Engineers already is doing for the river’s east side.
STREET WORK ACCELERATES WITH LOST FUNDS
The oft-heard lament about bad streets should start to subside in 2014.City officials already are revving up for 2014 street repair work, promising to do twice as much work as in recent years thanks to voter approval on Nov. 5 to extend the city’s 1-percent local-option sales tax for 10 years with all the revenue — about $18 million a year for now — devoted to fixing streets.
APRIL 17 IS BIG DATE FOR CASINO PROJECT
Last year had some big dates. On March 5, voters approved casino gaming in Linn County. On Nov. 5, voters agreed to extend the local-option sales tax to fix streets. And on Dec. 4, the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board awards Cedar Rapids $264 million over 20 years to help build a flood protection system.
This year has a big date, too: April 17, the day the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission has said it will decide if will grant a group of largely local investors led by Steve Gray a state license to operate a casino in Cedar Rapids.
Commission approval will prompt the immediate start of construction on the $130 million casino with a $25 million parking ramp on what now is a sprawling piece of vacant land across the Cedar River from downtown.
NEW PARKING RAMP OPENS
The face of the city’s downtown parking system has changed considerably since the 2008 flood. Two private parking ramps came down to make way for the city’s new convention center and the city’s rickety, flood-hit First Street Parkade was demolished, too.
In 2013, a new 460-space parking ramp opened on First Avenue SE to support the DoubleTree by Hilton at the U.S. Cellular Center complex and, now, in the first quarter of 2014, a 600-space, $12 million ramp is slated to open on the south side of downtown at Seventh Avenue SE.
City and downtown leaders say ample parking is essential to attract and keep employers downtown.
Funding for the ramp project is coming from federal disaster dollars awarded to the city because of damage to the city’s hydroelectric plant at the base of the 5-in-1 bridge. The city decided not to repair the plant but to use the money, as permitted by federal law, for an alternate project.
The city secured the federal dollars only after it prevailed in a dispute about the funding within the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FULL SEASON OF AMPHITHEATER EVENTS ARRIVES WITH CLEANED-UP RIVERFRONT
The city hustled to open the newly named McGrath Amphitheatre at the end of the summer of 2013, holding two events that featured area bands.
But 2014 will bring the promised full schedule of amphitheater events, including traveling musical acts in addition to events featuring local talent.
In 2014, too, amphitheater-goers will enjoy the city’s work to clean up the river’s edge between a new park area along Diagonal Drive SW that now connects via a new riverside trail to the riverfront amphitheater. The park area, which will be named for slain Cedar Rapids Police Officer Bret Sunner, will provide parking and support for larger amphitheater events.
The connection between the park and amphitheater in 2013 has transformed what had been a salvage yard scrapyard and gnarly thicket of trees into an attractive riverside experience.
KINGSTON VILLAGE TAKES SHAPE
Kingston Village still might not mean much to you, but in 2014 it should start to.
Developer Fred Timko will have residents living in his 17-unit Kingston Commons condominium tower overlooking First Street SW on the west side of the Cedar River, next to the Louis Sullivan-designed bank and former bank tower next door that Timko is in the process of renovating.
Nearby, a handful of new owners will begin in 2014 to renovate historic, flood-damaged storefronts in the vicinity of the bank on Third Avenue SW.
This is the heart of the newly named Kingston Village, which had been home to the town of Kingston before it was annexed into Cedar Rapids in 1870.
The proposed Cedar Crossing casino and the city’s new riverfront amphitheater both sit in Kingston Village and both are expected to help bring shape to the emerging neighborhood.
TWO TIRED DOWNTOWN BUILDINGS MAKE ROOM FOR LOFT HOUSING
Downtown advocates say today’s vibrant downtowns need to have people living there.
In 2014, look for more residential options in downtown Cedar Rapids.
Developer Darryl High is converting the former Coventry Gardens commercial building at 211 First Ave. SE into 19 loft condominiums and two commercial spaces, while developer Joe Ahmann will turn the former Great Furniture Mart building at 600 and 616 First St. SE into two floors of office and commercial space with five residential lofts on the upper two floors.
CEDAR RIVER TRAIL HEADS UNDER RAIL BRIDGE
The major paved trail through Cedar Rapids, the Cedar River Trail, runs from Hiawatha, along Interstate 380 and the McLoud Run trout stream, around Cedar Lake, through downtown and on to Czech Village, around the Mount Trashmore landfill, under Highway 30 and south toward Ely. In 2014, there’s a new twist.
By May, bicyclists will be able to make their way under the rail tracks instead of over them near Eighth Avenue SE. It’s a $651,534 project, with federal and state funds paying about 70 percent of the cost.
MORE TWO-WAYS, FEWER TRAFFIC SIGNALS DOWNTOWN
The city will continue its move to change one-way streets to two-way streets in the downtown and to experiment with a consultant’s advice to remove some traffic signals in the downtown.
In 2014, Fourth and Fifth avenues SE from First to Third streets SE, which includes the area around the Ground Transportation Center bus depot, will convert from one-way to two-way avenues.
The city also is apt to take bids in 2014 to extend the conversion to Fifth Street SE, but the need to make changes at the Fourth Street SE rail crossing will slow the extended conversion beyond 2014.
Two traffic signals on the edge of downtown — at Third Street SE and Fifth Street SE on Fourth Avenue SE — will continue to be covered up in 2014, with the intersections remaining four-way stops.
However, traffic signals at more downtown intersections — which also are candidates for conversion to four-way stops — will remain in place until the city undertakes a major sanitary sewer reconstruction along the railroad tracks from First to Third avenues SE, through Greene Square Park and then down Fifth Street through New Bohemia starting in 2015.