Tag: city hall

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.)

The Flood – One Year Ago

One year ago today, on Wednesday, June 11, 2008, historic flooding was underway in Cedar Rapids. My third summer as a seasonal employee with the Veterans Memorial Building maintenance crew, I had a very involved, first hand perspective of the flood in downtown and public facilities. Working at the Veterans Memorial Building, better known as City Hall, which sits on Mays Island in the middle of the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids, I watched the river rise daily and got regular updates and break room commentary on surrounding areas from my elder co-workers who lived outside the city. I remember watching the river rise through downtown the previous summer so up until the day or two before, it really didn’t seem like it was going to be that big of deal. Of course, official crest predictions continued to go up, and an additional downpour that Thursday pushed the river to crest at an absurd 31+ feet, breaking the old record by almost ten feet. Even during the flood and immediately after, I didn’t seem to grasp the enormity of its affect. Originally I figured we could be back in the building clearing out and cleaning up within a few weeks and have the building back up and running. Who would’ve known it’d be a year later, the lower levels cleared out and down to bare-bones, with little more than a possibility of the City offices one day returning.

Preparation at Vets Memorial
At work, the greatest day of urgency was on that Wednesday, June 11, the day before the building and much of downtown were completely overtaken with water. I recall arriving to work around 8am as normal. I walked from the GTC, where I commuted to by bus, past the riverwalk along the eastern bank of the river. The river level had began to rise above the lowest part of the walk, near 4th Avenue. Smulekoff’s, which sits directly next to the river, was clearly taking on water with a number of hoses from the basement pumping it back into the river. Water was also being pumped out of the underground Mays Island parking garage, which had begun to seep in a day or two before. This morning the river level was inches from topping the river wall lining the mid park section of the island and only four or five feet from the road beds of the three bridges.

Underground floodingAs I got into work, water had already begun to seep through the walls of the “underground” – an addition built underneath Second Avenue in the 1960s which connects the basement of the original structure to the underground parkade, also constructed at that time. Originally the location for emergency management and various other offices, the space had been condemned for a number of years due to falling pieces of concrete from the ceiling (below the street), and was essentially a large, half-demoed space used for storage, trash, and recycling sorting. Attempts to block or patch the wall seepage were no good and water quickly began flowing into the public hallway through the underground. We set up some sandbags by underground’s connection to the original building and set up a hefty pump to try to keep it down.

Throughout the day city office workers from upstairs were carting boxes of city legal records and other documents stored in the basement up to the auditorium on the first floor – which of course, turned out to be in harm’s way anyway as the final crest was two feet above the first floor.

I took two or three trips to Public Works in the dump truck to pick up pallets of sandbags that day. Volunteers were working around the clock filling sandbags for city and private use. I had trouble even getting in with the line of cars waiting to get their ten alloted sandbags. City vehicles were able to drive in to be loaded with full pallets. While in line one a woman was handing out free pizza and told us to “Keep up the good work.” As the situation worsened, cooperation and morale ran high.

Returning to the building with my first load, just about noon, I encountered heavy traffic. Congestion around public works and downtown as people rushed to prepare homes and businesses, along with the closure of the 3rd Avenue bridge made a normal five minute trip, take more like 20 or 30 minutes. It had begun raining at that point, making the enduring flooding seem even more dire. When I finally made it to the First Avenue bridge, I pulled into the east alley by the building and started unloading the sandbags around a basement window opening before breaking for a quick lunch in the shop.

Rain clouds cleared in the afternoon as work continued. Lots of people were downtown – many came as onlookers, and many came to help. Two guys who were walking by helped us unload another truck load of sandbags in front of a west side entrance to the mezzanine level. Back to public works for another load – surface level flooding becoming much more apparent in low areas a few blocks from the river. On my last trip back to Mays Island, police were diverting westbound First Avenue around 6th Street West due to water now over the road (in lower areas, not all the way from the river). I was allowed to go through as I was just going to City Hall.

Towards the end of my work day I helped the two night guys move supplies from the basement up to the dining room on the mezzanine level – again a futile effort as this room was entirely submerged the next day. Before leaving the building around 5pm, I went to the roof to get some pictures of the river flooding from all angles. At this point the 3rd Avenue bridge had been closed as water was but a foot from the road bed now. 2nd Avenue bridge was closed about an hour later. Eventually all river crossings in the city were closed except for I-380.

The Crest
The next morning, Thursday, June 12, it was raining hard. I had planned to go into work early but the building and much of downtown had already been completely inundated. That day, at home, we had to deal with rain-related water coming into our basement. My brother Daniel was also hurrying to move guitars and equipment from his recording studio about seven blocks from the river – just in case. He and his business partner had just signed a lease for a larger, more permanent space in downtown Marion so they simply moved much of it to their new location. I went along to help them out in the afternoon as rain was still coming down – and the river still rising.

After finishing up we decided to walk a few blocks toward the river where the water had now reached past the 4th Street railroad tracks in the downtown core. Many National Guard officers were on the scene keeping the public away and out of the water as volunteers continued sandbagging buildings close by. We didn’t stick around very long.

The next few days were to watch and wait. Many businesses outside of downtown were closed as accessibility throughout the city was extremely hampered with 380 being the only river crossing for days. With three of the city’s four collector wells being flooded, conserving water was also critically important. Most businesses and residents obeyed mandatory water restrictions, refraining from doing laundry and showering for days. The Cedar River finally crested at around 31 feet early afternoon on Friday, June 13, taking thousands homes and hundreds of city blocks.

Pretty much confined to the house as my summer job was under water and most businesses remained closed, that Sunday was a less than average Fathers Day, I imagine, for most of the community’s dads. My brothers and I went to see our dad that afternoon out at Kirkwood, where he had spent the past few days reporting news on the flood at KCCK radio. This was my first time crossing the river since the floodwaters had submerged much of downtown, and certainly Mays Island. Though water had already recessed a number of feet, the view from 380 was no doubt dramatic.

Post Flood Clean Up
I finally returned to work the following week on Tuesday, the 17th, meeting my VMC co-workers at the Police Station to start picking up sandbags and debris, along with some guys from the city parking division. As transit serve had not resumed yet, my mom gave me a ride there. After passing a checkpoint many blocks from the station, we drove down blocks of empty streets surrounded by empty houses and no people. It was very surreal.

All downtown bridges were reopened and transit service resumed Wednesday, the 18th, with limited service so I took the bus to work. A temporary transfer site was set up at 4th Ave and 12th Street SE, and buses were not allowed to pick up or drop off any passengers inside the still access-controlled flood zone. Since I was to report back to the police station, they allowed me off with a show of my city badge. With the same crew from the day before, we finished picking up sandbags at the station and then headed across the river to pick up bags at the public library. Private clean up crews were already well underway at the Great America Building across the street and downtown was beginning to buzz as debris piles began filling the curbs.

A few days later my first return to the building was to help take photos of damage, which can be seen here. We entered through a side door to the mezzanine off the loading dock ramp. Our view as we entered can be seen in the photo below. Everything inside was covered in mud, plaster and paint falling off the walls, and an unrecognizable darkness. Water still had not receded out of the basement so the mezz was as far down as we could go. Up on the first floor, which had taken on about two feet of water, the old wood auditorium floor was completely ruined as were many artifacts in the Spanish American War Memorial room that served as the VMC office.

Over the next few days as water went down to a foot or two in the basement, we recovered the gas pump we had been using the previous and set it up to pump out the remaining standing water. We now had a couple state troopers for 24/7 security, as we took turns “watching the building” – essentially just refueling the pump whenever it ran out. I spent many long days just sitting by the First Avenue doors watching the cars go by.

Not surprisingly, it took at least a week or two for professional cleanup crews to start picking up Vets Memorial, while many other buildings were already underway. Although I was not in position to actually do any cleanup work, they did need someone from our department there at all times as a go-to person and to unlock and lock the building at the beginning and end of the day. Like watching the pump, many afternoons, evenings, and Saturdays were spent simply sitting around at the building. I got to know our regular Per-Mar security gang, which replaced the state troopers as security. Other than that, the night crew and I spent much of the rest of the summer out at Veterans Memorial Park, by the stadium, which is also owned by the Vets Commission.

After returning to Ames this past year for school, I tried to keep up with recovery news from the Gazette and other sites, but it was hard not to disconnect from the flood. With the few days I was back in town for Thanksgiving and Christmas it was hard to gauge the progress. At spring break time in March, downtown had been pretty well cleaned up and many major businesses had returned. But work continues for smaller businesses and other less visible areas, like New Bohemia, Czech Village and Time Check. I was fortunate to be home then to participate in one the Neighborhood Planning Process meetings, which will help guide redevelopment as the community continues moving forward.

So now it is one year later. The Cedar Rapids Downtown District is marking the flood’s anniversary with a three day RIVERenaissance celebration, kicking off tonight with a flood documentary and flood time capsule presentation at the U.S. Cellular Center at 7:30pm. Other events include a 7 mile river run on the perimeter of the flood zone and “Floodstock” to raise money for continued flood recovery.

Public forum set on future of city hall

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.

Future of Vets Memorial Building

Last week FEMA officially decided the City of Cedar Rapids, not the Veterans Memorial Commission, will be the recipient of $20 million plus in federal funds to repair the flood damaged Veterans Memorial Building on Mays Island, which housed City Hall since its construction in 1927. Since I worked with the Veterans Memorial Commission at the building the past three summers and through the flooding, I’ve heard the argument from both sides. The Veterans Memorial Commission acts as the building’s landlord, which City Hall occupied “free of charge” without paying rent, but the Commission itself is a city department.

The building was constructed as a memorial to veterans and to house offices and meeting space for veterans groups, the Coliseum, Armory in the basement, and one floor for City Hall temporarily. According to veterans, City Hall was only intended to be in the building for the first five years before finding a new permanent location. That never happened, and since then, city offices expanded to most floors in the building.

Recently the City began a six to nine month public input process regarding a possible new shared facility with the public school district, currently operating out of a trailer village by Kingston Stadium. The original thought of a co-location included Linn County as well, but they declined to participate in order to move forward with repairing the County Administrative Office Building. To me, it seems silly for the City to be spending this amount of time to study a co-location with only the school district.

Since the Veterans Memorial Building is historical, it is required to be repaired, so the City might as well use space they already have available. Moving mechanical and electric equipment to space on the second floor would minimize damage from possible future flooding, and the basement levels could remain essentially unfinished as they are now gutted. City Hall, Veterans Memorial Building, where it stands is significant to the city’s history and identity. Centrally located, it is symbolic of the compromise between the east and west and unites all four quadrants of the city.

I stopped by the building this week to see the guys from the summer. Clean up work is finished and nothing but bare structure remains in the basement. Interior walls were removed on the mezzanine level so it is open to the basement from one side of the building to the other. The building is essential sitting empty now until work begins on it’s renovation, now one step closer with FEMA’s decision on funding.

> Hundreds of photos, which I helped take, of damage to the building immediately after the flood


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