The state of core housing

NewBo Station is a four story mixed use building next to NewBo Market. The building has 14 market rate apartments on the top two floors. Photo by Ben Kaplan.

At least 29 projects, with a total of 783 new residential units, have been built, proposed, or are under construction in the core of Cedar Rapids. These projects range in size from rehabbed historic homes converted to mixed-use to 96 unit apartment buildings in redeveloped historic buildings. There hasn’t been this level of investment and energy geared towards building residential in these neighborhoods for nearly half a century.

The city has used the 2008 flood as a catalyst for investment in downtown, Kingston, and New Bohemia. The McGrath Amphitheatre, Downtown Library, and NewBo Market have reinvigorated downtown and surrounding neighborhoods along the river (with the notable exclusion of the Northwest). Seven years after the flood these public projects have brought the heart of civic life into downtown. Uptown Friday Nights, Meet me at the Market and the Downtown Farmers Market are profoundly successful public events. Two new towers are being built in the heart of downtown, and companies large and small have moved into office space into these neighborhoods.

Cedar Rapids is hardly alone in the return of civic, residential and economic life to it’s historic core. The return to the city is one of the defining aspects of this era of American history. While much of the focus is on America’s largest cities, or cities that loom large in the American imagination like Portland and Pittsburgh, the rebirth of urbanism is a comprehensive national trend.

What does this mean for Cedar Rapids? The return of housing, specifically multifamily housing, into the core is the vital component that will allow the continued and prolonged revitalization of these core neighborhoods. Nothing matters more for a place than the presence of people. The new residential projects in Cedar Rapids core’ are the most important aspect of the continued economic and civic success of the city as a whole. This is a look at the new residential in core neighborhoods.

I’ve built a database of 29 of the new developments, covering 783 units total. I left out the ROOTS, and Affordable Housing Network (AHNI) houses. While these were, and continue to be, important drivers of redevelopment in Cedar Rapids’ core they’re not the focus of this map. This map is focused on multifamily and mixed use development developed outside of specific after flood programs. Overwhelming the map with dozens upon dozens of points for single family homes would make it impossible to navigate. I also know there are projects not represented on the map, including new townhouses on Ellis Boulevard, a remodeled two story mixed-use building on 1st Ave SW, two historic apartment buildings remodeled by Coe College for student housing, and other small projects that are missing. Still, I think these 29 projects and the 783 units they represent provide a good overview of the state of core housing.

Where are new developments being built?

I divided the data into four categories; Downtown, New Bohemia/Czech Village, Kingston Village, and an all purpose “Other” category for new developments close to the core but outside of the boundaries of those three areas. The big takeaway? Downtown has the smallest number of new units.

Downtown lags behind New Bohemia/Czech Village and Kingston in number of new residential units.

“Other”

The bulk of new units in the “other” category are in Wellington Heights, where three apartment buildings, with a total of 111 units, have been remodeled since the flood. This is also the neighborhood where AHNI’s Total Child program has plans to remodel nearly one hundred homes, including some duplexes. Other includes Jack Hatch’s new building, the 10th Street Brickstones and a smattering of projects in flood ravaged areas of the westside.

Kingston Village

The amount of new units in Kingston Village is truly staggering. Kingston has seen a large share of big projects, including The Lofts @ Red Cedar, a 41 unit block long mixed-use building going up across the street from the McGrath Amphitheater, and the Kingston Apartments, 64 units of income-restricted units along Diagonal Drive SW. Also of note is Kingston Commons, which was the first new residential building in Kingston, and the Villages, a 24 unit condominium building going up on 3rd Ave SW.

New Bohemia/Czech Village

New Bohemia and Czech Village combined have the second highest number of new units. For all the attention paid to New Bohemia, and it is a lot of attention, it’s kind of surprising it didn’t come out on top in the number of new units. It does have the Watertower and Bottleworks buildings, which add significantly to the number of units that exist in New Bohemia. The Cherry building also has residential units in addition to the galleries and office space it’s known for. This neighborhood is the smallest specifically highlighted area, and has the best connections to nearby neighborhoods. It will be interesting to see how soon investments spills over from New Bohemia into Oakhill-Jackson to the east and Hayes Park to the west.

Downtown

The amount of new units in Downtown has been held back for a few reasons, none of them lack of interest from developers. Much of the large parcels that developers would be interested in are parking lots in the MedQuarter and are owned by the three major institutions that anchor that district, PCI, St Lukes, and Mercy Hospital. In the MedQuarter master plan these institutions expressed resistance to the creation of housing in the MedQuarter, dubiously citing the high cost of land. These institutions own two thirds of the land in the quarter, meaning that if they don’t want it, it won’t happen. Frankly, no place in the core would be a better spot for the creation of new high density housing than the MedQuarter. Developers cite parking requirements as a crippling blow to the ability to redevelop existing structures or build on smaller lots. Thankfully the city has been willing to remove parking requirements on redevelopment projects. There’s also been renewed interest in downtown office space, meaning buildings that might have been converted into residential have remained commercial.

Proposed, Under Construction, Complete.

Out of the 783 units and 29 projects how many are still just twinkles in a developers eye (proposed), how many are currently under construction, and how many have been finished?

The number of units that are proposed, under construction, or complete.

The number of units that are proposed, under construction, or complete.

Proposed

Only a small number of both projects and units fit under proposed. The three projects that are I still consider proposals are 323 3rd St SE, The Mott Building, and The Landings. In skimmable list form:

  • 3 out of the 29 projects are still just proposals.
  • 61 units of housing are included in those four projects.
  • 7.9% of the total number of units are proposed.
  • 27 of the units are condominiums.
  • 34 of the units are going to be for rent.

The proposed list is small for a reason. Many announced developments turn out to be vaporware, and to be included on the proposed list I have to believe that a project will actually, eventually, happen. Most of the projects on that list have moved into the “Under Construction” category. Now I will too.

Under Construction

Nearly half of residential projects included in the data are currently under construction as of September 10, 2015.

  • 15 out of 29 projects are currently under construction.
  • 384 units are included in projects currently under construction.
  • 49.5% of total number of units are under construction.
  • 73 units under construction are condominiums.*
  • 311 units under construction are rentals.*

*The Depot advertises its units as for sale or for rent. Also worth nothing, The Lofts @ Red Cedar is a rental building with two penthouse units that will be condominiums.

Completed

  • 11 out of 29 projects are complete.
  • 330 units are included in those projects.
  • 42.6% of total units are complete.
  • 24 of the completed units are condominiums.†
  • 306 of the completed units are rentals.

†This number includes the Rowhouses on 2nd.

Overall 651 of the new units are rental units and 124 of the new units are condominiums units, or 84% rentals and 16% condos. This number isn’t as out of whack as it seems. Remember that this data doesn’t include any AHNI houses, ROOTS houses, Block by Block houses, or units that existed before the flood. I focused on multi-unit construction and mixed use construction which tilts heavily towards rental units. Some of the under construction units might switch from rentals to condominiums if developers believe that’s where the demand is.

The vast majority of new multifamily units are rentals. This is okay.

The small number of proposed units shouldn’t be taken as sign of a slowdown in investment in core housing. The projects under construction vary widely in scope and scale, and how close they are to their completion date. New housing will be available often for years to come as all the projects move towards completion. New projects are announced regularly as well, but to get onto the proposed list it has to be reasonable to assume that a developer has the financing and the knowledge to get the project built. Many projects don’t stand up to this kind of scrutiny.

The Breakdown

This data shows healthy, steady progress in adding housing to core neighborhoods. There’s still room for a lot more multifamily in Cedar Rapids core in order to maintain the civic and economic progress these neighborhoods have made since the flood. There are no indications that the amount of building will slow down soon. This is good, the city will become more adept at recognizing the needs of developers who are interested in these kinds of projects which will make the development process smoother, and many developers who have worked on projects in core neighborhoods will be able to go into new projects with a substantial knowledge base on how to make these projects successful.

More importantly for the average citizen, these projects will increase the vitality of these neighborhoods, encourage new retail businesses and general investment (beyond housing) in core neighborhoods, and add to housing choice for residents of the city. Soon people will have a choice of what kind of walkable neighborhood they want to live in, each with their own distinct identity. Right now early adopters are already making those choices.

Already downtown has transformed into a more lively and vibrant place than it was before the flood. The combination of existing businesses and institutions (like Zins and Legion Arts) and new (Parlor City, McGrath Amphitheater), and extremely successful events like NewBo Music Fest and the Downtown Farmers Market have expanded peoples expectations for what to expect out of these neighborhoods. Housing transforms these areas from places you spend a day or an evening into 24 hour places.

The addition of core housing will make the core of Cedar Rapids, especially Kingston, New Bohemia and downtown, into robust and engaging urban neighborhoods. This is awesome.

The “Others”

Many core neighborhoods that are predominately single family homes, including Taylor, Wellington Heights, Hayes Park and Oakhill-Jackson are close enough to these core neighborhoods to expect that investment, reflected through rising housing costs, will come in the near future. These neighborhoods will become more attractive as Kingston, New Bohemia and downtown mature and fill out with residential and retail. Many people prefer single family homes but still want to live in areas that have high walkability and these areas fit the bill.