Category: Cedar Rapids (page 2 of 9)

Greene Square Building History

Greene Square Park

On Friday, New Years Eve, the city-owned building in Greene Square Park was demolished following years of poor maintenance and minor flooding in 2008. The building opened Sept. 14, 1964, as a Senior Citizens Center, and most recently had been used for the Green Square Meals program. The one-story, fan-shaped building sat at the southwest corner of Green Square and opened up on to the park with a low, overhanging zig-zag roof.

The building appeared dated both in upkeep and the design itself. Its removal will return Greene Square into an entire open block that will accommodate a visual and active connection with the future new Cedar Rapids Public Library to be built across the street along the park’s southern edge.

Green Square Park building demolition

While there is little to object with the demolition, it is important to note the building’s significance in local architectural history. It was designed by Cedar Rapids architect Ray Crites who had an influential career in Iowa and throughout the Midwest. His most renowned buildings were houses – two of which were his own located in Cedar Rapids – that were distinctive vertical and horizontal compositions engaging natural sites. His partnership firm Crites and McConnell also played a role in the design of C.Y. Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State in 1969.

Throughout the city’s history Greene Square has been a mainstay even while much in and around it has changed. At one time Greene Square included the old Washington High School, was next to the spectacular Union Station, and across from the original Carnegie Library. Washington closed in 1935 and was demolished in 1946 after a failed preservation attempt. Similarly Union Station was torn down in 1961 to make way for a parking garage, which remains today. The old Carnegie Library still stands and was incorporated into a new facility for the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in 1989.

Cedar Rapids’ First Green Roof

KCCK’s Clean Up Your Act interviews landscape architect Ruth Fox about Cedar Rapids’ first green roof recently installed atop the Water Tower Place condominiums in downtown. The green roof is estimated to mitigate 80 percent of storm water runoff from the building and is hoped to spur other green roofs in the city. Several new and renewed civic buildings due to the flood are either planning or considering to incorporate green roofs, including the new public library, and potentially the new federal courthouse and Veterans Memorial Building (City Hall). Ruth points out that its important to cover a substantial area of a building’s roof to produce significant environmental benefit.

> KCCK Clean Up Your Act: Cedar Rapids’ First Green Roof
> Full interview with Ruth Fox
> Clean Up Your Act Podcasts

Public Hearing on CR Transit Improvements

A public hearing will be held at the July 27 Cedar Rapids City Council meeting to consider bus route and schedule changes recommended in the recent Cedar Rapids Fixed-Route Transit Analysis. Any interested individuals or groups are encouraged to attend and speak for or against any of the proposed changes. The meeting starts at 5:30pm and is held in the Council Chambers at Hiawatha City Hall.

Several improvements have been made already to the transit system, since a change in leadership and departmental reorganization a few years ago, which separated transit and parking into separate divisions. A greater emphasis has been placed on safety and customer service, and some improvements have been made in marketing. The purchase of new low floor buses has started to modernize the very old, rundown fleet, which, in fact, was the oldest fleet in the country of any transit system based on average vehicle age.

Route and schedule changes being proposed to the City Council are the result of a Fixed-Route Transit Study conducted this past fall by SRF Consulting and Bourne Transit Consulting. Recommendations were intended to be implementable right away, focused on improving legibility and efficiency of the system without significantly increasing costs. These changes are an important first step to improving transit in Cedar Rapids. Learn more about the transit study and recommended changes here.

If you are interested in the future of public transportation in Cedar Rapids, please attend and show your support for these changes. For anyone unable to attend, written comments can be sent to the Office of the City Clerk, 3851 River Ridge Drive NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402 prior to the hearing.

WHAT: Public Hearing on Proposed CR Transit Improvements
WHEN: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 5:30pm
WHERE: Council Chambers, Hiawatha City Hall, 101 Emmons Street

Weekend Attractions

While at the Downtown Farmers Market this morning a friend and I stopped by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art to see Grant Wood’s original full scale drawing of his design for the 24 by 20 foot stained glass window at the Veterans Memorial Building. The window was just reinstalled at the beginning of the summer after being repaired and restored following the flood. Also on current display in the museum were several artifacts from the National Czech and Slovak Museum. The Museum of Art is a fine facility with an impressive collection. Admission is free this summer for all visitors with support from Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust and United Fire Group.

We then walked down along the river to Czech Village to see the new flood exhibit at the Czech Museum‘s temporary space in the Kosek Building at 87 Sixteenth Ave SW. The small, but thorough exhibit features a brief history on the Czech and Slovak immigration to Cedar Rapids, the neighborhoods they formed here, and an extensive display about the flood. Like most things in the city’s history, the Sinclair meatpacking plant played a major role, first attracting Czech and Slovak immigrants to Cedar Rapids for work.

The Czech Museum draws visitors from around the country and world – there was a family visiting from Czech Republic while we were there. The museum is really worth a visit – the exhibit is engaging and the temporary space looks very attractive. And while in the neighborhood, stop by Sykora Bakery for a delicious kolache – they come fresh and with friendly service.

City Updates – July 14

New weekly update on news and development in the City of Five Seasons. It’s time to enjoy.

New Transit Buses
CR Transit 2009 Gillig Lowfloor #2092Tomorrow, July 15, CR Transit will begin running four new 35 foot, 2010 Gillig Lowfloor buses, that arrived July 2. Part of an effort to finally modernize the system fleet, this order follows the first order of brand new buses last summer, along with an additional five coming next year.

For years Cedar Rapids purchased only used and refurbished buses, which had more mechanical issues and were less attractive to riders. Having modern, new buses is critical to improving the system, but CR Transit still has a long path to becoming a better transit system fit for Cedar Rapids’ size.

CR Transit will have one of the new buses on display during the Kernels game this Saturday, July 17, from 3:30 – 5:30pm at Veterans Memorial Stadium in celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act. Fans can check out the new bus and is an opportunity for people who have never ridden the bus to see how easy and convenient it can be.

Medical District News
In a finely-worded press release this week, two public meetings were announced for August regarding PCI’s Medical Mall development. Earlier this year PCI proposed closing 2nd Avenue SE between 10th and 12th streets, claiming it was the only configuration they could fit all their programs without disrupting ground level connectivity (despite two adjacent blocks that are proposed to be surface parking in their plan). Initially most members of the City Council seemed cool with this, giving PCI a favorable impression to their proposal, but heavy public opposition soon followed. Most vocal citizens are concerned with the traffic effects of closing off 2nd Avenue and the cost required to convert 3rd Avenue into two ways. I am opposed to the street closure, not for vehicular traffic, but the barrier it will create between downtown and the surrounding residential neighborhood and disruption to the urban pattern. (I will argue this position more precisely in a later post.) The meetings will be held at the Crowne Plaza Ballroom on Wednesday, August 4, from 4 – 7pm, and Thursday, August 5, from 11am – 1pm.

Also, the City Council is likely to approve spending $124,336, for Alliant Energy to burry power lines along 7th Street E from A Ave NE to 8th Ave SE, in anticipation of future streetscaping along the street related to Medical District improvements. From Rick Smith’s City Room blog: “According to a city staff report to the council, Interstate Power and Light Co. needs to install a new transmission line along Seventh Street SE, and putting it underground would cost the city less now than to do it later. The city has agreed it would pay the extra cost to move lines underground, the staff report notes.” These improvements will help improve the aesthetic of the new Medical District and the area around downtown.

Events Center Development
A design team of OPN Architects, Ellerbe Becket and tvsdesign has been selected for the new Cedar Rapids Events Center, which will include a renovation and expansion of the existing US Cellular Center and a large addition housing new meeting and exhibit space. 3rd Street NE will be closed between 1st and A avenues and then new addition will occupy that space and half of the adjacent block, wrapping around behind the Roosevelt Hotel. Most likely the Roosevelt parking garage facing 1st Avenue will remain as well. This is a truly exciting project for downtown Cedar Rapids and will provide much needed upgrades to our convention facilities to attract more events and people downtown. The project timeline set out by the city is quite swift with construction to begin late next summer and be complete by the end of 2012. Keep up on the Events Center progress on the City’s CR Progress webpage.

Juvenile Justice Center Groundbreaking
A ceremonial groundbreaking took place this morning in the 800 block of 2nd Street SW for the new Linn County Juvenile Justice Center, which will house juvenile courts and related services that were formerly in the basement of the county courthouse on Mays Island. The building design was by Design Dynamics Inc. of Cedar Rapids; rendering below.

Witwer Building + Downtown Hotels

Witwer Building, Cedar Rapids

The Witwer Building at 303 2nd Ave SE in downtown Cedar Rapids was originally the Post Office and Federal Building when built in 1908. (The original structure actually dates back to the 1890s, but was completely rebuilt in a different style in 1908.) It is currently owned by Linn County and housed community service-related offices and a senior center before the flood. The county now has plans to sell the building, which presents some compelling redevelopment opportunities. For instance, County Supervisor Linda Langston announced last week that a developer had been looking at the site for a boutique hotel at one point. However, she noted it is now more likely the building would be made into offices. Despite this reality, let’s entertain the hotel idea for a moment.

A small, boutique hotel in downtown could help increase nightlife activity downtown and the uniqueness of it would be attractive to certain visitors who otherwise would not stay at a hotel in downtown. The building itself seems appropriately sized to accommodate 10-15 guest rooms and perhaps a restaurant or upscale lounge on the first level. The site is at a very good location to synergize with other downtown attractions. Within a two block range is Theatre Cedar Rapids, the Paramount Theatre, the US Cellular Center and future Cedar Rapids Events Center, along with some existing bars and restaurants.

In addition to more housing, it is important to diversify the kinds of amenities and attractions in downtown to create a more lively, 24-hour neighborhood. While a specialty hotel seems pretty unlikely at this point, if one were to be developed, I’d be cautious to doubt its potential for success, as similar ventures have worked very well in other comparable cities.

Hotel Donaldson, FargoA great example of a new high-end niche hotel succeeding in a modest midwestern downtown is the Hotel Donaldson in Fargo, North Dakota. The “HoDo” was built in 1894 as a meeting hall, and opened as a hotel around 1915 when a third floor was added. Deteriorated over the decades, Karen Stoker bought the hotel in 2000 and renewed the building into a modern upscale hotel with 17 guest rooms, a high-end restaurant and lounge, and a variety of small meeting spaces including the “Sky Prairie” rooftop garden. Since its rebirth the Hotel Donaldson has been very successful and a pivotal part of Fargo’s downtown revitalization. There is also a dominant Radisson Hotel in downtown Fargo, plus a mid-level Howard Johnson on the edge – similar to Cedar Rapids’ arrangement with the Crowne Plaza and Coppers Mill Hotel.

In the past downtown Cedar Rapids was home to several hotels as it was the active hub of the city and for the decades the grand entry for visitors at Union Station, which most tragically was demolished in 1961, and replaced with a parking garage. Nearby the station and along the 4th Street tracks were a number of large hotels. Between 1st and 2nd avenues, sat the Allison Hotel and Magnus Hotel, both handsome, five-story brick buildings adjacent to the tracks. Unlike today, the corridor of tracks were responded to by buildings much like they would to normal street facades.

Unfortunately nearly all the original buildings along the tracks are now gone and nearly all remain as vacant lots or lifeless parking structures. The half-block site where the Allison and Magnus hotels stood is now the parking lot next to TCR that had been used for a number of years for the BBQ Round Up. Other nearby downtown hotels included the four-story Taft Hotel on 2nd Avenue next to the tracks and the six-story Montrose Hotel at the corner of 3rd Ave and 3rd Street SE. The Taft Hotel is now a parking lot behind the art museum and the Montrose Hotel was replaced by the five-story Town Centre office building around 1990.

Allison Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids Magnus Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids
Allison Hotel (left) and Magnus Hotel sat along the 4th Street tracks between 1st and 2nd avenues.

Taft Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids Montrose Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids
The Taft Hotel (left) was on 2nd Avenue SE east of the 4th Street tracks. The Montrose Hotel was located at 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue SE.

The historic hotel photographs are taken from Then & Now: Cedar Rapids Downtown and Beyond by George T. Henry and Mark W. Hunter, excerpts available on Google books.

City Updates – July 6

More news and views from Cedar Rapids:

Freedom Festival
The Freedom Festival fireworks returned to downtown this 4th of July, after a two year hiatus following the flood of 2008. It was great having the fireworks back downtown, but unfortunately they were launched from the green space on Mays Island, rather than a small barge as in years past, so the island and both 2nd and 3rd avenue bridges were closed off to spectators. Mays Island and the two bridges have long been center of fireworks festivities with food vendors lining the bridges and a band stand set up on the green. It is one of the only times our civic island is actually used anymore. Most days it sits empty and lifeless, extending the divide between our east and west, rather than uniting them through a grand civic park it once was.

According to Russ Oviatt, Freedom Festival operations director, “The launch site change was necessitated after the existing barge arrangement that had been used for a number of years was no longer an option.” No explanation for why the barge is no longer an option, but it sounds likely this will be the case from now on.

From Freedom Festival executive director Janet Wilhelm, “It’s not unexpected that even though the Celebration of Freedom fireworks are returning to downtown Cedar Rapids this year, it will take several years to establish a new “traditional” downtown venue.”

I hope another launch site can be found in downtown. Cedar Rapids undoubtedly has one of the best fireworks celebrations in the region – it would be a real shame to stop taking advantage of our unique island venue, that has united east and west neighbors on the 4th of July for years.

In other fireworks news, the Ellis Fireworks also returned this year, put on by the Cedar Rapids Boat Club. The annual display traditionally held on July 3 near Ellis Park along the Cedar River, was postponed in 2008 following the flood and was cancelled in 2009 due to ongoing flood recovery efforts in the surrounding neighborhood.

Czech Village Roundhouse
Business leaders in Czech Village hope to raise over $2 million to rebuild the Riverside Roundhouse, elevated on a new concrete-deck with parking underneath. The Roundhouse was built in 1962, in Czech Village and used for a farmers market until it was moved downtown in 2007. Following the flood neighborhood business owners dismantled the steel structural skeleton and put it into storage with intentions to reconstruct it someday. The former site will now be occupied by the National Czech and Slovak Museum building, which will be moved and elevated from its current adjacent site, on the banks of the Cedar River between 12th and 16th avenues SW.

Proposed Czech Village Roundhouse, from Ament, Inc.
Czech Village Roundhouse rendering by Ament, Inc.

The proposed new Roundhouse site is at 17th Avenue and B Street SW, which is to the south behind the main commercial strip of 16th Avenue between A Street and C Street SW. The proposal, devised by Ament, Inc., would place the reconstructed Roundhouse atop a 14,400 square foot concrete deck with parking space for 24 cars underneath at ground level. The rendering above, created by Ament, Inc., shows the proposal. Business owner Alex Anderson who is spearheading the fundraising effort says the building will be used for Czech Village events and hopes to be completed by 2012.

I am not against this project, but I question its feasibility and cost-benefit. While saving the Roundhouse is a noble venture, it seems unreasonable to spend that much money to elevate a building that is little more than a steel skeleton with a minimal interior finish. Construction of the concrete deck for the building to sit on would constitute the bulk of the $2 million cost, and an elevator to make it universally accessible would cost $250,000, according to the Gazette.

An alternative would be to reconstruct the Roundhouse at grade (even built up a few feet) with awareness of potential future flooding. This would eliminate the enormous cost of the concrete deck and the need for an elevator (which would be affected by flooding regardless). Think of what else that same amount of money could be spent on in the village. Read more on the Gazette.

Mexican Restaurants Downtown
The history of the Brosh Funeral Home and Chapel building in New Bohemia became clearer last week when 83 year-old Harvey Viall came forward with his story and photos of working at the building in the early 1950s when it was a station for the Denver-Chicago Trucking Company, which had transported weapons and other goods for the military during World War II.

Two weeks ago the owner of Papa Juan’s/Stefano’s announced he wants to open a new Mexican restaurant in the building, but cannot afford to without historic tax credits and exemption from raising the building above the 2008 flood level, which would only be available if the building is granted “contributing” historical status. A new application is now being sent in for historic status based on its connection to World War II. If approved, plans are to invest $900,000 in renovations and have the new restaurant open for business within four months of obtaining permits. Read more here from the Gazette.

Further north in downtown, another new Mexican restaurant is planned for ground floor space in the Berthel Fisher & Co. building at the corner of First Avenue and Second Street SE. La Cantina will open just a few doors down from the long-standing Gringos Mexican restaurant on First Avenue. A new restaurant here is positive news for improving the vitality and activeness of downtown.

First Street Parkade
The nearly 50 year-old First Street Parkade downtown will be demolished soon. Read more at Urban Corridor.

Brucemore Balloon Glow

_DSC0461.JPG

The annual Freedom Festival Balloon Glow was tonight at Brucemore. Five hot air balloons adorned the expansive lawn along First Avenue, along with a live band stand and several food and beverage vendor stands. There was a great crowd out tonight on a very comfortable summer evening. Events like these are fun for all ages and make Cedar Rapids an attractive place to live.

See my other photos of the Balloon Glow here.

25 Year Old Library Time Capsule Opened Today

Cedar Rapids Public Library time capsule from 1985, opened June 29, 2010.

The time capsule at the now former Cedar Rapids Public Library was uncovered and opened this morning (Tuesday, June 29) after being buried since 1985, when the library building was built. Evidently it took several years of trying to pass a super-majority vote by citizens to fund the new library, which replaced the original Carnegie Library location at 3rd Avenue and 5th Street SE, now a part of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

The capsule was buried about five feet down, under a triangular planter near the main entrance. The contents, which were all paper materials (brochures, books, newspapers, etc.), were put in a cardboard box, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, and placed in a baby casket. The casket had begun deteriorating and clearly had filled with water during the flood. All the contents were damp with several areas of mold growth, but in surprisingly good shape for sitting wet for the past two years.

The materials were laid out to look through and view by those attending before being taken to be frozen to halt anymore mold growth until they can be sorted and restored. Contents included a White & Yellow Pages phone book (obviously much more used back in ’85), brochures and literature about most of the local non-profit organizations and cultural venues, some local post cards, and the most interesting documents – reports and plans for major civic projects underway at the time. There was a report on the new airport terminal – which opened up a year later in 1986 – with some fantastic concept renderings of the inside and the front. Unfortunately I could not open to see the inside due to its current condition.

About ten to fifteen people showed up for the time capsule opening, about half from the local news media. Ted [unsure of last name] who was the architect for the 1985 library building was there at the beginning. I was able to talk with him for a few minutes, which was very interesting. He told me about his former firm, Brown Healy Stone & Sauer, which later merged with Howard R Green Co in 2001, after he had already retired.

The opening of the time capsule was the last remnant of the library at this building and site. It functioned as a library for only 23 years from 1985 to 2008, and will now be transformed into an office facility for TrueNorth. While the development of a new central library across from Green Square Park is exciting and ultimately, probably the best decision for the Library’s future, the existing building will always be appreciated for its role as our central library for the past quarter-century. The reinvention of the building into something new, serving a different role, is similar to the story of the old Carnegie Library, which now houses the gift shop, activity rooms, and offices for the art museum. By keeping the building and reusing it, even with additions and aesthetic alterations, its contextual, cultural, and new historical value is preserved for future generations.

The photo above is from the Cedar Rapids Public Library’ Facebook album. See more time capsule photos here.

Note to Bus Driver: Stay Cool, Be Cool

Today coming home from work I had a different bus driver than normal on Route 3. Driving eastbound on 3rd Avenue, a few blocks out of downtown, an SUV from out-of-state pulled out in front of the bus, only to immediately turn into the next driveway. The bus driver, of course, had to slow down, but instead of simple braking a little until the path was clear, she laid on the horn. It was completely uncalled-for, overaggressive and unprofessional.

I have experienced other incidents while riding CR Transit where drivers overreact and honk their horn if a car pulls in front of them or cuts them off. This can be frustrating – just as it can be for any other driver – or cyclist or pedestrian. But driving a 35-40 foot long, multi-ton bus safely and responsibly demands some restraint and a simple assumption that other drivers on the road aren’t paying as much attention as they should be. Honking the horn out of frustration, rather than an actual imminent hazard can be dangerous and make buses look like “bullies” and can give people a negative connotation about transit and bus drivers in particular – especially those who are being honked at.

The vast majority of drivers at CR Transit are safe, courteous and professional, however, as a bus driver myself with CyRide, l do notice a different driver culture and a higher tolerance of aggressive behavior. As a passenger these incidents degrade the quality of service and my impression of the system.

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