Mixed-use development offers urban cool to Cedar Rapids

Development driven by demand, urban sprawl

Rick Smith
Published: March 28 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:15 am in

CEDAR RAPIDS ó One adjective ó mixed-use ó defines a with-it urban design concept that has arrived in local development circles here and among city hall planners.

The concept, which is on wide display in large cities and has gotten a strong foothold in urban centers such as Des Moines, is driven by the trend away from urban sprawl and by the demand from residents who want to live in downtowns near where they work, eat, drink and play.

"Itís newer to Cedar Rapids Ö (the idea) where communities are more densified, where people donít want to spend time working out in their yards, they donít want to have to drive 15 minutes to work," said Gary Kranse, the city of Cedar Rapidsí development director. "I want to be able to walk, to bike, and I want amenities, too. I want cool stuff to do when Iím not at work."

A new poster child for mixed-use development in Cedar Rapids is a proposal from young developer Charles Jones, who is seeking support from city officials for his plan to spend $2.5 million to renovate the former Sokol Hall and Gymnasium building at 417 Third St. SE.

The historic, three-story building, constructed in 1908, has stood vacant for some seven years, and Jones wants to transform it into artisan shops, a restaurant with a 30-foot-high ceiling and giant stained-glass windows, a lower-level lounge, a rooftop bar and four high-end apartments on the second and third floors.

Hence, mixed-use†ó retail, restaurant and bar and apartments.

The 30-year-old Jones, who lives in Iowa City but may move into one of his Sokol building apartments when the renovation is complete, said cities such as Chicago and New Orleans have plenty of mixed-use developments, and Cedar Rapids will, too.

"It just makes sense. There are certain people who want to live downtown where the action is," he said.

Jennifer Pratt, the cityís assistant development director, said another good example of mixed-use development is High Propertiesís project to convert the former Coventry Gardens Mall at 211 First Ave. SE across from the convention center into two first-floor shops and 19 residential loft units above them.

Another is the New Bohemia Station project on the former Brosh Funeral Home site at 1020 and 1028 Third St. SE, which has been delayed but is scheduled to begin construction later this year. The project includes shops, apartments, an extended-stay hotel and basement theater.

The former Great Furniture Mart warehouse building, at 600 and 616 First St. SE, is being converted to offices, commercial space and residential lofts.

Pratt said the cityís planning staff began to talk about mixed-use projects along with "smart-growth and infill-development principles" some 15 years ago, and in 2006 the cityís first city manager, Jim Prosser, also arrived with the planning concepts from his experience in suburban Minneapolis and in Chicago.

"But this is market-driven," Pratt said. "Weíre not building these things. Developers are."

She said some of Cedar Rapidsís largest employers have told city officials that it can be difficult to attract and retain young employees who may be coming from bigger-city settings and who expect to find some of that in Cedar Rapids.

"We may be starting later than Des Moines, but thereís not a dream of mixed-use for mixed-use sake," Pratt said. "Something weíve been very conscientious about is providing housing options. Ö And one option is a more urban-living environment."

Marty Hoeger, president and chief executive officer of the not-for-profit Neighborhood Development Corp., convinced his board of directors to invest in a small mixed-use project with 3,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor with five apartments.

The location, at 609 First Ave. SW, on heavily traveled First Avenue West and within walking and biking distance to downtown, made the project attractive, Hoeger said.

Even so, tenants began moving into the apartments in early 2012, but it wasnít until August of 2013 that he filled the commercial spaces. He said he had plenty of offers but did not want a nail salon, tattoo shop or start-up businesses without business plans.

The Freedom Festival is now in place there. Three of the buildingís five tenants work downtown, he added.

"There is something to be said being close to where you work with gasoline at $3.40 a gallon," Hoeger said. "I donít know if itís a new craze, but I hope it catches on."

Actually, both he and the cityís Kranse said mixed-use development is a back-to-the-future trend. Both point to Czech Village, and Hoeger to Marionís main commercial strip where storefronts have living units above them.

Kranse said development trends over many years moved away from mixed-use, with the idea that uses should be split from each other.

"Everybody wanted to live on a cul-de-sac. We all wanted to live on our own piece of America," he said.

A New Urbanist movement over the last 25 or more years, Kranse said, began asking, "What makes a community?" People began to want to live where they worked and played, he said.

Hoeger said the Neighborhood Development Corp.ís mixed-use project was new enough to Cedar Rapids that an appraiser had to go to Iowa City and Des Moines to find similar projects so he could establish a value for the Cedar Rapids project.

Kranse, who previously worked in suburban Denver, said it has taken that Colorado city some 30 years to see mixed-used developments help bring its downtown and other commercial areas to life. And it will take years for similar developments to flower here, he said.

Developer Jones was young, a little rumpled and unknown when he first showed up in Cedar Rapids after the 2008 flood. But his first development project ó the restoration of what had been Linn Countyís flood-damaged Witwer Building downtown ó has been a successful mixed-use project with a mix of restaurant and offices.

On Thursday, he was looking out the big windows of the Sokol gym building onto Third Street SE, which city and downtown officials hope to see become a fully developed, mixed-use district stretching from the U.S. Cellular Center on one side to New Bohemia on the other.

Jones, who has a bachelorís degree in economics from the University of Iowa, said developers and lenders both like mixed-use developments, in part because the residential and office components of a project can pay the bills if the restaurant and retail profit center of the investment arenít always delivering.

He said, too, that heís happy to have his mixed-use plan for the Sokol building sit on the leading edge of the changes he said are coming.

"I think the economic trajectory of Cedar Rapids, especially downtown Cedar Rapids, is really good," Jones said. "The ratio of population to cool places in the downtown is very much off.

"In Iowa City, in Des Moines, there are loads of cool places. Cedar Rapids is a big city, and I still think there arenít many really good venues."

He said hockey great Wayne Gretzky had it right when he said, "You donít skate where the puck is, but where itís going."

"If you know thereís going to be more demand for something and you build it now, and youíre there to catch it as itís coming, thatís where youíre successful," Jones said.

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