Until recently, downtown churches have perhaps been some of the most resilient tenants of the city center. Those that remain have preserved important pieces of Cedar Rapids’ cultural, architectural, and spiritual history. Lately however, more than one historic church in the city core has faced a loosing battle for survival. The changing demographics of the city, like many, with generally fewer residential properties downtown, have caused some downtown churches to lose members, while others have had the opposite issue, with growing membership and the need for larger or additional space.
This past October the Peoples Church at 3rd Avenue and 6th Street SE, was torn down to make way for a new office building. At 136 years-old it was the oldest standing church in the city. Now it is the century old First Christian Church two blocks away that appears to be just days from demolition. Tuesday was the 100th anniversary of the building’s groundbreaking on May 22, 1912.
From an architectural standpoint, First Christian is much more significant, with direct design influence from Louis Sullivan and remarkable stained glass windows designed by Louis Mellet. The unique building has a strong civic presence and greatly enhances the urban quality of this block. Built right up against the sidewalk, the church maximizes its site with a flat, rectangular building that appears more civic than religious. Despite missing teeth, the church contributes to a strong urban edge that makes this block of 3rd Ave feel more walkable, dynamic and safe.
The church, now owned by St. Luke’s Hospital is slated to be torn down to make way for about 40 parking spaces to serve the new PCI Medically Pavilion, commonly referred to as the “Medical Mall,” under construction about a block away. St. Luke’s purchased First Christian Church in December 2010 for $695,000, when declining membership and maintenance costs compelled the congregation to sell the building and relocate. At that time St. Luke’s intent for the property was not clear and it was not part of the proposed medical mall plans. (1)
Much contention already exists about the medical mall since the City Council’s controversial decision to close a segment of 2nd Avenue between 10th and 12th streets SE to allow PCI to build on. PCI argued they could not feasibly build up, rather than out, and threatened to build elsewhere away from downtown, citing Hiawatha as a potential alternative. Additionally the City agreed to provide generous financial assistance for the project – $13.24 million in tax increment financing for a parking ramp and associated street improvements. (4)
Supposed to be the catalyst project for the new Medical District SSMIM (self supporting municipal improvement district), the Medical Mall was initially promoted as a more urban building that would infill peacefully with existing important structures. Instead the emerging building is awkwardly situated, very close to two remaining neighboring buildings (Surgery Center and First Lutheran Church) – now part of the large super block created by closing and building over 2nd Avenue. While density generally should be celebrated, it is diminished by the vastness of open parking lots that will now surround the new facility.
Development now taking place in the Medical District has deviated greatly from the type and quality of development and improvements originally presented to the public. In official concept plans developed by Sasaki Associates, the street was not closed, new development densified the district, and character-rich buildings like First Christian remained. According to St. Luke’s, the development site plan was approved by the city “and made public” on February 3, 2011. There was no real announcement, however; nor was it readily available anywhere, so most people were unaware. Once 2nd Avenue was closed, the church still appeared in vague site diagrams available to the public. Even now, on PCI’s own website, the only site plan displayed is an outdated map graphic produced by the Gazette that shows no changes at all to the First Christian block.
In an April 2011 statement released by St. Luke’s, PCI, and Mercy Medical Center regarding the fate of historical structures in the Medical District, St. Luke’s pointed to the city’s code-based parking standards for reason why the First Christian Church site was needed to “support” the required new parking. (2) The hospital offered to contribute the equivalent demolition costs to anyone interested in moving the church. Mission of Hope, a local non-profit agency was looking into this endeavor, but of course it ended up being cost prohibitive. (3)
According to city code, seven parking spaces are required for every 1000 square-feet for medical buildings, but PCI received a variance from the city reducing this requirement to five – which is what the Development Department is now recommending the code be changed to. (6) On Tuesday, February 28, 2011, the City Council agreed to reduce parking requirements for medical buildings from even further from five to 4.5 spaces per 1000 square feet, in hopes to save the church. Despite this, PCI CEO Mike Sundall refused to consider changes, claiming losing the 40 spaces would make parking “really, really tight,” and they were not willing to bear legal fees that supposedly would be involved with this adjusting the plans. (4)
Despite the lowered parking requirements, however, St. Luke’s and PCI continue to perpetuate code-based parking requirements as the key factor in tearing down the church on their reactionary FYI website regarding the church demolition. Parking, clearly is not the real issue. They are obviously land banking for the future, but in doing so are degrading the future vitality of the Medical District as a pedestrian friendly area with mix of businesses, housing, and medical facilities, which they claim to subscribe to.
St. Luke’s plan to tear down the church came to light in early January 2012, when the Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) highlighted it on their “Most Endangered Buildings” list. Around the same time, St. Luke’s applied for a demolition permit from the city. Under recommendation from the HPC, a 60-day hold was placed on the permit. According to city leaders, this is the extent of their legal power to prevent the demolition since it is privately owned and not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A newly formed citizen group called “Save CR Heritage” has been rallying since that time trying to work with St. Luke’s and PCI to find an agreeable solution to preserving the building. Supporters held “funeral march” demonstrations in front of the church each weekday during morning and afternoon rush times to protest the pending demolition. In March 2012, St. Luke’s announced they were willing to sell for $900,000 if funds and a proposal could be put forward in a matter of a few short weeks and a down payment of $90,000 in an even shorter period of time by March 23. (5)
According the Beth Chacey DeBoom, Chair of Save C.R. Heritage, the price tag included: $430,000 for the church and ground beneath it (not including the church’s parking lot), $375,000 for two large apartment houses next door, which they insisted must be purchased along with the church; $30,000 for work already done (mostly asbestos removal); and $70,000 in legal fees. St. Luke’s CEO Ted Townsend later estimated legal fees to be as high as $250,000, bring the total closer to $1 million and higher.
Supporters frantically tried to raise funds while looking for potential developers that could support the project. Some local developers were mostly interested in converting the church into condos, but the striking stained glass windows could have been challenging to preserve in place. The most legitimate interest came from Grimes-based Koester Construction that has a lot of experience in historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects.
On April 23, Save C.R. Heritage and John Koester of Koester Construction submitted a letter of interest to St. Luke’s President/CEO Ted Townsend requesting the opportunity to explore several options thought viable for the building’s future reuse, including office space, a boutique hotel, and/or using the space for special events that could be rented for public or private events. The letter requested the structure be maintained in current condition and to retain the stained glass windows intact. This of course did not happen as the stained glass windows have since been removed and some windows now sit open, leaving the inside of the building vulnerable to the elements. So despite several developers expressing interest in the church, the time frame and poor cooperation on St. Luke’s part made it very difficult to raise funds and prepare a business plan according to their demands.
On May 4, even the mayor got directly involved, asking the hospital to consider just donating the church and pledged $300,000 in city funds to go toward redevelopment costs. (6) Considering the immense financial and political support they have already received from the city, it would be appropriate for them to further consider alternatives that have been proposed. But ultimately, St. Luke’s is unwilling to cooperate and is putting their interests ahead of the greater good. As of today it curiously still stands, though it has been fenced up for a week now. Suspicion raises as the holiday weekend nears, if it will begin coming down when nobody is around to see.
It’s amazing St. Luke’s and PCI are willing to put their public image on the line for something so contentious. Overwhelming public opinion is against them and the destruction of First Christian will not be forgiven quickly. This battle appears to be lost, but it most certainly is not the last. First Christian serves as yet another wake up call to Cedar Rapids that we need to think proactively and get ahead of the [wrecking] ball to save the significant buildings we have still have. Which one will be next?
1. The Gazette “Sale of historic church to St. Luke’s Hospital raises concern” Cindy Hadish – Jan. 25, 2011
2. Statement from Mercy, St. Luke’s, PCI “Medical District Statement” – April 2, 2011
3. The Gazette “Cedar Rapids panel compiling list of endangered properties” Cindy Hadish – Jan. 8, 2012
4. The Gazette “Last-minute efforts to save historic Cedar Rapids church may be futile” Cindy Hadish – Feb. 28, 2012
5. The Gazette “St. Luke’s Hospital officials say church demolition on hold” Cindy Hadish – April 6, 2012
6. The Gazette “First Christian’s final Sunday” Todd Dorman – May 20, 2012
Peter Kageyama, author of “For the Love of Cities” spent a few days in Cedar Rapids last week while in the area for his presentation at TEDx Iowa City on Friday. While in town, Peter met with different creatives/innovators/do-ers and lovers of Cedar Rapids in a variety of formats from casual small groups to larger events directed at young professionals, as well as speaking at the Convention & Visitors Bureau annual meeting on Thursday.
The premise behind Peter’s book and workshops are identifying what it is that makes us love and connect with our cities and how to cultivate and encourage those things. It is the little “love notes” as he calls them that attract us to cities – the cool local coffee shop, a popular farmers market, public art, unique street furniture, etc. that punctuate our daily routines, making cities uniquely our own. The point is, the greatness of cities is the sum of those many little love notes, and they need be nurtured and paid attention to, much the way a romantic relationship between two people would be. In contrast, the overall of cities – traffic congestion, road conditions, politics – things people most often identify as reasons to not love a city, are not things that can be “fixed” and result in significant change or more lovin’. At best, as Peter put it, someone may say “Well the traffic doesn’t suck as much anymore.” No love.
I had the good fortune of meeting Peter last week at a small book club meeting, as well as at a Creative Cities/Beer Tasting event held Wednesday evening at White Star Ale House downtown, geared towards young professionals in the community. It was exciting and encouraging not only to meet Peter, but also with so many others that are enthused and active in Cedar Rapids. I can’t wait to get involved with others working to move our community forward, on large and small scales, rather than just complaining about it. Believe it or not, there’s actually quite a lot of love for the CR.
The NewBo Fest was this past weekend, running Friday through Sunday, celebrating all that is going on in New Bohemia, Cedar Rapids’ growing arts district just south of downtown. A newly rebuilt 3rd Street, the active spine through the neighborhood, was bustling with a variety of vendors and multiple music stages, set up at NewBo Park, in front of Parlor City, and underneath the old drive-thru canopy at Capone’s. While a few flood-ravaged houses and empty lots remain, several smaller buildings have been reopened or are currently being restored.
The historic CSPS Hall (photo above), home of Legion Arts, was open to tour, just days after its grand reopening following a multi-million dollar renovation project to improve the facility after the flood. The restoration enhances the building’s versatility for hosting a variety of performing arts, exhibits, and other events. Going back to the building’s historic roots as a Czech social hall, new spaces and improved accessibility will allow a much wider array of events and gatherings, both public and rentable for private functions. Perhaps most exciting is the inclusion of three store-front tenant spaces – two front 3rd Street, flanking the grand arched entry, and one along the side facing 10th Avenue. According to our tour guide, co-director Mel Andringa, there has been a number of interests in the spaces for coffee shops/wine bar, a bookstore, and apparel store. In addition to the CSPS Hall, the old firehouse next door was also renovated to provide space for visiting artists or performers to stay.
A block away from CSPS is the Cherry Building, the nucleus of the creative arts community in New Bo. Built in 1911, as a dairy equipment factory for the J.G. Cherry Company, the building is now divided in a number of studio spaces for artists, creative business ventures, and even an organic lip balm company (EcoLips). Since the flood, the first level was remodeled with new windows and finishes, while the upper levels remain less refined and (presumably) more affordable. Some sculpture pieces were on display in an open flex/exhibit space towards the back, while the hallways provide a canvas for in-house artists to display and advertise their work. The building was open today for the festival and a number of studios and businesses had their doors open – I had no idea the place was so full and active.
Street reconstruction work continues on 3rd Street south of 12th Avenue to 14th Avenue, where a few small businesses have reopened, but the area remains pretty desolate. The corner of 12th and 3rd Street is the main intersection in NewBo, now anchored on three corners by restaurant and bars – Chrome Horse, Parlor City, and recently Capone’s, opening in the former Village Bank Building. The remaining (NE) corner is the final major component, the NewBo City Market. Set to open next spring, the market will transform an existing metal-sided industrial building set back from the street into a large indoor market hall with a large plaza in front for larger open-air markets in the summer and parking in the winter. An historical storefront facade will be salvaged and serve as the front to a new market store building, to be open more regularly than the market itself. Once open, the NewBo City Market will enhance attractions like CSPS, the Cherry Building, and existing bars and restaurants in the neighborhood.
The addition and improvements of these organizations and facilities, in addition to public investment with new streetscaping, have laid a terrific foundation for private investment to follow and really create a lively, active and urban neighborhood in Cedar Rapids. The synergy of these different organizations and facilities in NewBo will be an impetus for attracting more people and infill development, making the neighborhood even more active and resilient. Despite remain pockets of sparseness, the activity at the NewBo Fest this weekend provided a look into what a typical weekend may look like in a year or two. It’s been incredible to watch the transformation thus far, but will be even more exciting to see the changes yet to come. Good things are in store for New Bohemia.
Thanks to The Gazette’s Jennifer Hemmingsen’s post on her blog, I learned of an Iowa City-based project called Crossing Borders. Originally created by three UI grad students, the website provides a starting point for dialogue and increasing understanding about Iowa City’s changing demographics and the cultural conflicts -both real and perceived- that come with it. This “Civic Storytelling Project” is a refreshingly honest look at the migration of mostly lower-income, African Americans from Chicago in recent years, which has been a hot topic of local discussion, unfortunately plagued with stereotyping, misinformation, and a lack of understanding. The website contains an array of information through a combination of research, storytelling, documentation, and promotion of community events. Well worth checking out.
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.
Neighborhood Network News has posted video of last Saturday’s (Jan 23) “Imagine a Vital Neighborhood” urban design conference in Cedar Rapids. Architecture students from Iowa State University’s
Bridge Studio presented design proposals and strategies for sustainable redevelopment in Oakhill Jackson and New Bohemia. I haven’t watched the videos entirely yet, but there were a range of ideas from more abstract and statistical to more specific design proposals. One intriguing idea was very ambitious, proposing a residential high rise and retail complex including a Target store – on par with mixed-use urban big box developments found in several larger US cities. A common theme was to reuse building materials (like from Farmstead) for new construction in the neighborhood.
The videos are definitely worth a watch. Special thanks to Robin Kash for posting these and other community meeting videos on Neighborhood Network News.
Cedar Rapids-based, non-profit organization S.E.E.D. (Sustainable Ecological Economic Development) will be hosting a Sustainability Symposium “Imagine a Vital Neighborhood” this Saturday with architecture grad students from Iowa State University. Students will present design proposals to stimulate ideas for building a pedestrian friendly, sustainable neighborhood in the Oakhill Jackson and New Bo areas near downtown Cedar Rapids.
S.E.E.D. founder and Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood Association President Michael Richards has been collaborating with the College of Design’s “Bridge Studio” for two years. The first year students developed prototype designs for post-flood affordable housing that received the grand prize for the 2009 NCARB Prize for Creative Integration of Practice and Education in the Academy. Professors Clare Cardinal-Pett, Peter Goche, and Nadia Anderson, who was my studio instructor this past fall, will be leading the event.
Anyone interested in the revitalization of these neighborhoods and making a more livable, sustainable Cedar Rapids is encouraged to attend. The forum will be held from 10am – 5pm, this Saturday, Jan. 23, at the Community Conference Hall in the Horizons Building, 819 5th St. SE. More information about the event can be found on BJ Smith’s Puncture Proof blog.
The 19th annual Iowa City Jazz Festival continues today and Sunday on the Pentacrest in downtown Iowa City. Multiple food vendors are set up along Iowa Avenue and Clinton Street in front of the Old Capitol, along with the dozens of great restaurants and cafes in the downtown area. This event is one of my favorite weekends each summer – good music, good food, and great atmosphere. Fourth of July Fireworks will be take place after the last of today’s performances, usually around 9:30. I’ll be glad to be in Iowa City again this year for the 4th, as the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival fireworks display this year is only at Kirkwood instead of downtown.
88.3 KCCK-FM is broadcasting the festival live. Check out kcck.org to listen online.
The Cedar Rapids Neighborhood Reinvestment Action Plans have been published on the Corridor Recovery website. This plan was developed by Sasaki Associates with a great deal of community input through the Neighborhood Planning Process during the first few months of 2009. It was approved by the City Council on May 13, to guide short and long term redevelopment in flood-affected neighborhoods. The final action plan includes a specific set of tasks to be completed that will compliment comprehensive goals.
RIck Smith of the Gazette reports on his city government blog that dates have been set for three public participation meetings lead by OPN Architects, on the future of flood damaged city facilities, including the former home of City Hall, the Veterans Memorial Building on Mays Island. The meetings will be on June 23, August 18, and October 6; location TBD. I look forward to participating as all concerned Cedar Rapidians should.
The City officially, at this point, has no position on the matter, whether to return to existing facilities or locate elsewhere, possibly in a brand new building. However, as Rick points out in his post, neither Mayor Kay Halloran, Councilman and mayor pro tem Brian Fagan, or City Manager Jim Prosser seem very adamant about returning to the former location. There is a buzz about the sustainability of facilities as the city moves forward, which some use as an argument for a new, more energy-efficient facility.
I am not one to be paranoid, overly-skeptical, or presumptuous of poor decision making about City leaders, and remain generally supportive of their actions and understanding of the current situation the city is facing. I do, however, find it a bit odd, with the issue of sustainability being so important, that returning to the Veterans Memorial Building is not given much consideration. Since the structure is historical, it is required to be renovated. If such an expense will be inevitably required, it would be much more economical – and environmentally sustainable – to return City Hall to where it has been the past 80 years. What could be more sustainable than reusing an existing building? With brand new mechanic and electric systems the building could become much more energy efficient than previously and the City could renovate current space into contemporary office and meeting space that a modern municipal government demands.
Renovating and reusing the space the City already has would not only be more environmentally friendly, but also politically. Despite arguments about long-term energy savings with a new or different city facility (which wouldn’t necessarily be the case), getting the City back into City Hall makes sense now and would be a major PR boost for city leaders, who have not fared well in the public eye since the flood. Renovation of the VMC could be completed much sooner than a brand new facility – extending the City’s need for temporary facilities not centrally located.
Additionally, I believe it’s the City’s responsibility to the community to make sure this architecturally and historically significant building doesn’t go sitting vacant and underutilized for years to come. The building is an icon of the city; it makes Cedar Rapids unique, unites the east and west, and symbolizes our civic pride.
City Hall should return to Veterans Memorial Building on Mays Island. It could be done in a timely manner and makes the most environmental, social, and economic sense. That is my position and why I plan to participate in the public forum.