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Downtown Cedar Rapids getting back on its feet as four-year mark of post-flood era nears

Rick Smith, CR Gazette –

CEDAR RAPIDS — The heart of the downtown has made significant strides as the four-year mark of the June 2008 flood approaches, downtown leaders say.

Doug Neumann, vice president at the Metro Economic Alliance, reports that much of the first-floor space at the Town Centre building is filling in, restaurants are now in the Witwer Building and the Roosevelt buildings and other smaller vacant first-floor spaces are slated to have new tenants.

“We no longer have the dramatic, visible vacancies that we had between 2008 and 2011,” Neumann says. “The 200 block of Second Street SE has some noticeable vacancies, but otherwise, it is getting very close to a typical, expected level.”

Scott Olson, a new City Council member, downtown property owner and commercial Realtor active in the downtown, suggests that office and retail tenants are coming back into the downtown and into flood-hit, first-floor spaces there because they anticipate the city will have a new flood protection system.

He notes that the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan for a new flood-protection system for most of the east side of the river has leapt some significant hurdles even as it still awaits backing and funding from Congress.

As the city waits, the Corps is at work on a $12.3-million effort to design and engineer its recommended east-side plan before construction, the cost of which has been put at $104 million including preconstruction design and engineering. The non-federal share of the cost is 25 percent for preconstruction expenses and 35 percent of construction costs.

“You got to assume some day you have to have flood protection,” says Olson.

A remaining skittishness about a future flood is being offset to a degree, he adds, by the realization that more people will be coming into the downtown once the new federal courthouse opens this fall, once city government occupies the renovated former federal courthouse this summer and once the county returns to its central office on First Street SW in late summer.

“That means another 1,000 people coming into the core of the city,” Olson says. “So we’re now starting to see more first-floor activity.”

City Assessor Scott Labus says his office’s analysis of property values in the Cedar Rapids downtown on both sides of the river has resulted in a return of much of the property value on the east side of the river, but not so on the west side.

About 15 percent of the first floors in the east-side downtown core remain vacant, estimates Labus’ chief deputy, Beth Weeks.

On Jan. 1, 2009, six months after the 2008 flood, Labus says his office lowered the value 25 to 40 percent on downtown properties on both sides of the river. Some of the value loss was tied to damage to individual properties and some to the “economic loss” suffered by the downtown area as a result of the flood.

A year later, he says he added an additional 10 percent value reduction due to economic loss on both the east and west sides of the river. However, by Jan. 1, 2011, Labus saw improvements to the downtown and removed the 10 percent value reduction for economic loss put in place on all properties the year before.

This year, Labus says he will remove all the reduction of value based on the economic loss to the 2008 flood on the east-side properties, but retain a 20-percent value reduction on west-side properties because of the area’s post-flood economic loss.

“We just haven’t seen many improvements over there. I think it’s still kind of wait and see what’s going on there,” he says.

Properties on both sides of the river will still receive value reductions for first-floor spaces that remain unfinished, he adds.

“We work with both private and public economic development people, and from what we’re hearing, they are seeing more and more demand for downtown,” Labus says. “It’s going to take some time — three to five years to really start to move fast. The new federal building and convention center will help quite a bit.”

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