Tag: downtown (page 1 of 2)

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.

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.

Bustling Cedar Rapids

I am back in Cedar Rapids for the summer, following a stimulating semester abroad in Rome and my own travels beyond. (Blog posts regarding those travels still to come…) I am interning at a prominent local architecture firm in downtown Cedar Rapids. Today was my first day; I believe it went well, but I must say I was quite disappointed in the total lack of activity around downtown. Whenever I am away for a long period of time I seem to re-envision downtown as a much more bustling place. Obviously the city center took a major hit from the 2008 flood, and a recent article in the Gazette explains ground level tenant space has been slower to reoccupy; but even so, it’s a bit discouraging when at 10am there are maybe five pedestrians out, just scattered traffic, and several premium on-street parking spaces vacant. (And people still think we have a parking problem) Downtown has a lot of good things going for it right now, and coming on over the next couple of years, so hopefully the situation will improve dramatically. Time will tell.

Once I get my travel posts written, I look forward to shifting focus back to CR. My first topic to tackle will be the controversial proposal to close 2nd Ave for PCI’s new medical mall (a letter to the elected’s could be called for). Also I plan to follow the renovation work to take place at the Veterans Memorial Building, now that City Hall will return there for certain, as well as new developments coming on board like the new convention center and the massive US Courthouse now under construction. Another matter that has recently caught my attention is the on-going demolition of flooded homes in Time Check. It’s time for another great summer in Cedar Rapids.

Design Process Blogging at NDSU

I came across a number of blogs this week by M Arch students at North Dakota State, chronicling the progress and process of their studio projects over the past semester. The course is Arch 771: Advanced Architecture Designs taken by fifth year students in the five year Masters degree program offered at NDSU. The project appears to be an infill master plan for the university’s emerging downtown campus. Renaissance Hall, which was NDSU’s first downtown facility opened in fall 2004, in the renovated 100-year old Northern School Supply Building, housing architecture, landscape architecture, and art programs. I attended NDSU my freshman year and took pre-architecture and drawing courses in this building.

In 2008, two more buildings about three blocks north of Renaissance Hall were renovated and expanded to house the College of Business and the remaining architecture studios. Recently a five-story retail and student apartment complex called Cityscape Plaza was completed to accommodate the growth of students downtown. As more university growth takes place downtown it is important to create a cohesive campus downtown. These student proposals begin to look at what could become of this downtown endeavor and ways to link it to the main campus about 12 blocks to the north through visual and physical connectivity.

It’s interesting to see a range of graphical representation of site analysis and proposed modifications. Sketchup was used heavily, but done quite well. Admittedly the blog format as utilized is a bit difficult to navigate at first because most don’t provide an overall summary about the project. I imagine, since multiple teams have blogs, it was either a requirement or recommendation to document their process. It is especially intriguing for me to go through their process since, from my understanding, I would have been in that same course this semester had I not transferred to Iowa State after my freshman year. Additionally it is always fun to see the kind of work being done at other architecture schools. Check out the project blogs below:

> Pushing Fargo Forward
> Epidemic Design
> Interesting Fargo
> Town and Gown
> SeekSolveShow

Spring Groundbreaking for Regional Commerce Center


The Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce intends to break ground this spring on a new three-story Regional Economic Commerce Center in downtown Cedar Rapids, with completion expected in early 2011. The modern, glass building will replacing the current bland, one-story Chamber of Commerce office at the corner of First Ave and 5th Street NE.

The new economic center was first proposed back in March as a 60,000 square foot, six-story building to house the chamber, convention and visitors bureau, and a number of other commerce-related organizations under one roof. Instead it will be built as a 30,000 square-foot, three-story building. The overall design appears to stay the same, simply reduced to three stories.

Despite the downsize, this is still a positive change for downtown. With the proposed convention center development and upgrades to the US Cellular Center, along with renovations currently underway at Theatre Cedar Rapids, this area along First Avenue through downtown should be seeing some major improvements over the next few years.

> Gazette: Regional Commerce Center close to ‘go’

Good Noise for Downtown

The sound of piles being driven into the ground resonated through downtown this afternoon from the site of the new federal courthouse that is finally under construction after years of numerous delays. As other federal buildings had jumped ahead in priority over the years, last year’s flood put Cedar Rapids’ back on top. The new courthouse will be an incredible addition to the downtown skyline at a scale not seen for decades. The most recent significant addition to downtown was the Great America Building in 1998, just a block away from the new courthouse.

TCR could return downtown by next spring

With the help of a $1.5 million grant from Vision Iowa, Theatre Cedar Rapids and the Community Theatre Building Corp. hope to begin a $7.8 million expansion and renovation of the Iowa Theatre Building in downtown Cedar Rapids by the end of summer or early fall. FEMA is expected to contribute about $3.8 million for the flood-damaged building. According to the Gazette, “Outside the theater, visitors will see a new digital marquee. Inside, they will see a lobby that doubled in size. Larger restrooms, an open staff office and rehearsal space also are part of the project. The theater’s basement will house new dressing rooms, a make-up room, costume construction plus storage and rehearsal space.” Since the flood last June, TCR has been performing at the former “Let’s Dance” building by Lindale Mall.

Neighborhood Reinvestment Action Plans published

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.

> Neighborhood Reinvestment Action Plans

New public library branch opens downtown

A new temporary downtown library branch opened in the Armstrong Centre today, one year after flood waters filled the former main downtown branch. Since then, the Cedar Rapids Public Library has operated out of its branch at Westdale Mall, and recently expanded into a larger space there in the former Osco Drug store. The downtown location will be open weekdays from 10am – 6pm, and during the Saturday morning downtown farmers market throughout the summer.

The library board has voted to put a property tax levy increase on the ballot in November, to increase the current library of 4 cents per $1000, to 27 cents. This would end up being a $23 annual property increase on a home valued at $100,000 – a small price to pay for the future of our public library. From the Gazette, “[FEMA] funding will help pay to restore what the library lost in the flood and to build a new library, but a new tax increase would go for library operating costs, particularly when a new library is completed in 2011.”

In March, FEMA declared the flooded downtown library hit the 50 percent damage threshold, meaning it would help fund total replacement of the current building instead of repairing it. A new library is expected to be built on a different site in downtown, further from the river. An exact location or timeline has not been determined.

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