Mays Island no longer suitable for City Hall

A little over a week ago I had the opportunity to talk with a local architect about the flood recovery in Cedar Rapids and particularly the future of city buildings and downtown. As the City is working to decide what to do with its flooded facilities – essentially whether to return to former buildings or locate elsewhere – there are many issues that need to be considered. It is important city leaders and citizens do not jump to conclusions or base their decisions on short-term concerns alone. After having this discussion, I came to realize a lot that I hadn’t considered when forming my opinion about what to do with the Veterans Memorial Building, better known as City Hall.

The rebuilding of city and community facilities, businesses, and housing must be done in a way that will make Cedar Rapids a better, more resilient and sustainable community for the long range future. Despite the destruction and hardship for so many here, the flood has really presented Cedar Rapids with an incredible opportunity to rebuild better than ever, as to ensure the city’s well-being for generations to come.

In recent months I’ve been an advocate for returning City Hall to the Veterans Memorial Building. I argued this position in a few posts (here and here) on this blog and even wrote a letter to the editor (read here) that was published in the Gazette on the flood’s first year anniversary date back in June. I have a great deal of interest in this building after working there during the previous three summers with the building’s maintenance crew. I got to know the building well – and the veterans who are so adamant about it. I was one of the first and few people to go inside after the flood and spent a lot of time around there during the cleanup that ensued. My desire to see city offices return was mostly based on my concern for the urban context of the island and what I perceived as environmental and cultural sustainability. However, after discussing with this architect, I have changed my mind and think it’s important to explain why.

To argue that the current Veterans Memorial Building, even pre-flood, could provide ample and functionally efficient space for city offices, which I did, is admittedly short-sighted – especially when considering the constant risk of future flooding. This is not a matter of comfort or convenience for city administrators, but a critical matter of long-term viability of this building functioning as city hall. There are a lot of constraints with the building, especially post-flood, so it probably couldn’t be suitable for city offices much longer in to the future, if at all.

Firstly, FEMA prohibits any functions to return to the basement, mezzanine, or first floor, whenever the building is finally repaired. Limiting the refinishing and future use of the basement and mezz is understandable, but not being able to use the first floor is a significant issue – not only with more limits on usable space, but also accessibility. I’m not sure what the specific restrictions would be for the first floor, but obviously there would need to be finished entrances and circulation space to access upper floors. This unusual situation of occupied upper floors with vacant street levels would not only be awkward, but create even more way-finding and circulation issues than what existed even before the flood.

Additionally, regardless of future use, mechanical and electrical equipment will need to be relocated to the second floor, taking away even more available office space. The building’s historical status adds another layer of functional limitations, by restricting extensive interior space alterations, so City Hall would have to make-do with whatever types of space arrangements currently exist.

And lastly, something I really hadn’t considered enough before – in the event of another significant flood, the future levee / flood wall system would only intensify the risk to Mays Island, which will have no added protection. This is certainly not where we want our city government in another such event – we learned this the hard way already. Even in more minor future floods, the island would likely be inaccessible, walled off by the removable flood wall sections put into place downtown. Considering this on top of all the other functional setbacks, returning City Hall to the Veterans Memorial Building simply would not be the best long term option for the city.

Right now Cedar Rapids has the incredible opportunity to invest in new and improved facilities that can serve the city for the next 100 years, as Veterans Memorial and other buildings have done so over the course of the last century. Instead of dwelling on the immediate monetary costs, we need to be thinking about how long our chosen facilities will last – physically, functionally, environmentally, and economically. If we pass up the opportunity we have at hand, giving in to the “no frills, no thrills” banter, it will be much more difficult to build new facilities in the future when needed. City and government budgets are getting tighter and tighter, so available funds for these types of projects are likely to be even more scarce in the future. Planning for facilities that will function well and sustain for the next century is in the best interest of Cedar Rapids.

Now, if Cedar Rapids does build a new city hall and other community facilities (which seems likely), we must build them to last and not go with the cheapest, plainest designs. It is important for us to be proud of our new public buildings, something that’s not possible through fiscal frugality alone. Considering the amount of detail, care, and pride that went into our civic architecture of the past, don’t we owe it to ourselves and to future Cedar Rapidians to carry on this important tradition?

Below is a wonderful photograph I found on Flickr from user derAmialtebloede, of the Mays Island extension underway in 1926 in preparation for construction of the Veterans Memorial Building. What an incredible undertaking this must have been – Cedar Rapids certainly didn’t skip any stops on its last City Hall. (Click photo to view larger size. Take note of the old Smulekoffs building in the middle of the island, as well as the current US Bank Building under construction in the background in downtown.)

2 Comments

  1. Spencer Walrath

    August 2, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Is FEMA seriously not allowing use of the basement, ground and first floors? You’re absolutely right, that cripples the building! I don’t understand how they have the authority to restrict the use of a building once it has been restored.
    Also, what will become of the Veteran’s Memorial Building if the city offices stay out and the bottom 3 floors are prohibited from use?

  2. Brady Dorman

    August 3, 2009 at 12:58 am

    That is the question… the Vet’s seem to be fine with just using it themselves, but still with the same annual funding from the City – which is not really financially sustainable for the city. It seems like the now wide open basement area could be used for temporary events, or maybe even a movable flood exhibit / museum … but long term, the issue is funding and legitimate function of the building.

    Thanks for the comment.

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