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.)

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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