Category: Development (page 2 of 2)

Figure Ground Development Patterns

Figure-ground diagramming is an interesting and useful tool for analyzing spatial relationships in urban environments. It also provides a striking comparison of density and land use of older urban development compared to more contemporary suburban development. In older, urban places buildings typically took up the majority of space on a city block so even when diagramming built structure as figure (black) and space without structure (ground) the graphic would essentially depict the street grid. In more contemporary development however, auto-centricism has made for much more spread out buildings divorced from the street edge. Instead of relating to the street and sidewalk (if there even is one), these buildings related to their respective parking lots. Figure-ground diagrams of these sorts of places are often difficult to discern where roads actually go, but are very telling at the amount of open space wasted on the temporary storage of cars.

The figure-ground diagram above is an example of one of these suburban places that lack order and urban spatiality. They vast openness surrounding the buildings makes it hard to tell where roads go or even scale. The variety of building orientation in this case makes it even more difficult to decipher. In the image below, the roads are included, and we can begin to understand more about this space.

The diagram shown is of the Lindale Mall area in northeast Cedar Rapids, where First Avenue and Collins Road intersect. First Avenue is the road running diagonally from the lower left-hand corner up to the top right. I first decided to explore this area through figure-ground after noticing the actual corner of First Ave and Collins is very undefined. In fact, hardly any of the buildings in the study area relate in orientation or proximity to the street at all.

In the image below I stitched together multiple bird’s eye views from Bing Maps. The predominance of pavement stands in stark contrast with the lush green, tree-laden land to the south. The awkward angles at which big box stores were built, situated far from the street, combined with sloping terrain, makes for a very haphazard, almost disorienting, landscape. Driving along First Avenue, the only thing definite is that you are constantly surrounded by parking lot. Asphalt abuts the street the entire length, with only a few small outparcel structures even nominally close.

The area began developing in the 1960s, following the construction of Lindale Plaza, later enclosed as the indoor mall it is today. Besides Lindale, most of the larger scale retail developments there today were only built in the last ten years or so, as older properties were redeveloped. These recent redevelopment areas comprise a significant amount of the First Avenue corridor, and every single one disregards site context and has little relationship to the street. How unfortunate since these will ultimately remain for at least the next few decades.

So why is this a problem? The chaotic development pattern makes finding particular businesses – especially while driving – more difficult, and is very inconvenient for pedestrians. Even if the area had a complete sidewalk network, going from place to place would take much longer on foot than if buildings were closer to the road. I also don’t think massive parking lots make for a very attractive street environment.

Now I’m not advocating no parking, but what if the placements of all these buildings were simply switched with their respective parking areas? If buildings were located by the street and parking placed in the rear, it would be more accessible and equitable to those arriving on foot, bike, or bus – while still serving car customers just as well. With buildings all along the street, it would reduce the distance between places, making it easier for people to get to multiple stores and restaurants in the area on foot. In the current setup, it’s likely most people will get back in their cars just to drive over to the next store rather than walking.

Aesthetically, the street would be much more attractive with a well defined edge. This would provide the area a stronger sense of place and urbanity, instead of the anonymous suburban scape that exists now. Distance-wise, the mall and surrounding development is really quite close to a large residential area, just a few blocks down First Avenue, but right now there’s not even a sidewalk from around 40th Street up until the mall, where then, there is only a partial sidewalk along the south side in front of Home Depot. Even so, if a continuous sidewalk existed, psychologically the perceived distance from nearby homes would be quite long due to the spread out configuration of buildings. Built-up density makes walking distances seem shorter, while vast open space – like parking lots – makes distances seem longer.

If newer buildings like Home Depot and Marketplace on First had been built up to the street, this area would already look and feel more dense and closer together. With a more urban scale, nearby residents may find walking or catching the bus (pending improved transit service) to be more convenient than driving the five or six blocks to the mall. Unfortunately the current setup encourages and almost necessitates driving.

I don’t expect this area to ever drastically change, especially since many of these developments are relatively new, but I do hope that other new large and small scale commercial developments will be more respectful of the street and accommodate customers arriving by all different modes equally. Urban design is not only about how the environment looks, but about how it is organized, oriented, scaled and proportioned. Good urban design can have a profound impact on the accessibility, usability, and sustainability of new developments.

New Structured Parking

A new parking garage is under construction at a very visible corner in downtown Cedar Rapids. United Fire & Casualty Co. is building a new three story ramp on a company-owned surface lot adjacent to its building on Second Avenue SE. The new parkade will front 2nd Ave and 1st Street SE. The design by Solum Lang Architects of Cedar Rapids, is extremely plain as seen in the rendering below.

I am normally not a fan of additional parking structures in downtown – which the business community and general public seems to laud as necessary for the success of downtown. I think better parking management and people being willing to walk one or two blocks from the car (not to mention alternative transportation) would solve any perceived parking problem there is in downtown. However, since this is a privately funded and owned structure, being constructed on a relatively small site that otherwise would likely remain an open parking lot for years, I do not have that much issue with it. I would argue it should at least have ground level retail space to contribute to activity on the sidewalk, but that would extremely limit the parking capacity of the structure as it is such a small site.

Adjacent to the site along 1st Street is a one story retail / commercial building (seen in far left in image above) and across 1st Street is the federal courthouse, damaged in last year’s flood, which will become property of the City once the new federal courthouse is opened. Across 2nd Avenue from the site is the Alliant Energy Tower, and kitty-corner to it is the now structurally-deficient First Street Parkade. This city-owned parking structure has long been slated for replacement by the future intermodal transportation facility at a new site, which has also spent many years in the planning and re-planning stage.

Development at Mercy


Two sizable construction projects have finished up at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. A new medical building was constructed along 8th Ave at 8th Street SE. Also a three level parking structure has been built at 8th Avenue and 10th Street, on a former parking lot adjacent to the main hospital entrance. The structure is built right up to the sidewalk so it gives the corner a nice massing.

In the past five years or so, both city hospitals, Mercy and St. Luke’s Hospital, have had numerous improvement and expansion projects at their facilities. The two medical centers are located about eight blocks apart along 10th Street East at the edge of downtown. The area in between features a number of health related offices and has been designated the “Medical Zone” in the recently completed River Corridor Redevelopment Plan.

Affordable housing in restored brownstone

An historic four story, brick apartment building in Cedar Rapids has been restored and reopened as 15 affordable living units. The Brown Apartments building at 1234 Fourth Ave SE in Wellington Heights is 95 years old. An official ribbon cutting was held Thursday, May 21.

> Gazette: Brown Apartments brought back to life

First Street Closed for Courthouse

First Street SE in Cedar Rapids between 7th and 8th avenues will be closed permanently starting Monday as work on the new federal courthouse gets underway. The completed building will sit on a two blocks site between 2nd Street SE and the river. First Street will end at 7th Avenue in a new civic plaza space. The building design is a collaboration between William Rawn Associates of Boston and OPN Architects of Cedar Rapids.

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