NIMBY’s Killed The Best Project the Northwest Side Has Seen in Decades

$28 million in development has been killed by NIMBY’s on the Northwest side since last fall.

A rendering of the mixed-use buildings on the north side of Johnson Avenue NW in the proposal for the Lincoln Highway Lofts. [ctsy: Side By Side, LLC]

For the second time in less than a year, using nothing but straw-man arguments, vocal neighbors have killed a promising project on Cedar Rapids’ Northwest side. In October, the City Council capitulated to neighborhood opposition and killed Crestwood Ridge — a $9 million apartment project on Edgewood Road NW. On May 17th, Council capitulated again, killing the Lincoln Highway Lofts — a $19 million mixed-use development in a neighborhood along Johnson Avenue NW.

The Lincoln Highway Lofts, designed by Side By Side Development, was the best new development proposal I’ve seen since the flood. The mixed-use project was planned for land along Johnson Avenue NW — about a quarter-mile east of Edgewood Road NW — and owned by Keith Billick, Side By Side principal developer and landscape architect. Plans called for 20 live-work spaces and 23 condos configured as townhouses or single-family homes.

The Lofts would have been infill development in a neighborhood that hasn’t seen new construction in forty years. They’re architecturally interesting (no red brick in sight!), they’re in the city’s quadrant that most needs new investment (and seems most overlooked) and they bring key elements of walkable urbanism from the downtown core and other older neighborhoods into an area dominated by automobiles.

How the lofts related to the surrounding neighborhood. [ctsy: Side By Side, LLC]

I’m not even sure where to begin with my praise. Each of the live-work units would have had a small footprint — suitable for businesses like salons, coffee shops and small retail stores. Zoning restrictions and a condominium covenant would have prohibited the types of businesses neighbors usually find inappropriate (“adult entertainment” for example). The project was even unanimously approved by the city’s planning and zoning commission and supported by city staff. A traffic study showed the project would have no impact on traffic flow. Stormwater runoff would have been handled using underground basins and permeable pavement, with likely measurable improvements to stormwater’s impact on the neighborhood.

Every favorable list item was checked.

Of course, stormwater runoff, traffic, and character were the major reasons neighbors opposed the project. And the same arguments were used against CommonBond Communities when the Minnesota-based affordable housing developers tried to build the Crestwood Ridge apartments along Edgewood Road NW. Crestwood Ridge was a mixed-income apartment complex that would have included units set aside for homeless families. The Lofts were middle class housing that would have sold at market rates. The arguments against Crestwood were bunk and they’re bunk for Lincoln Highway Lofts too.

Here’s what the Gazette’s editorial staff had to say about neighborhood opposition to Crestwood Ridge:

Break through all the noise and what’s left are a group of residents who readily admit the need for this type of housing project, so long as it isn’t built in their neighborhood. City Council members have a responsibility to make decisions based on fact, not unjustified fears.

Even though the Lincoln Highway Lofts were a very different project from Crestwood Ridge — the same argument holds true. The lofts were a vital, important, project, killed by short-sighted opposition based on invalid arguments.

Why the Lincoln Highway Lofts Died

[Left] A rendering of the Lincoln Highway Loft project at 3010 Johnson Avenue NW. // [Right] A rendering of the Lincoln Highway Loft project at 2937 Johnson Avenue NW. [ctsy: Side By Side, LLC]

Taking a look at how the Lincoln Highway Lofts died is a worthwhile exercise. The project is split between two lots, 2937 on the south side of Johnson Avenue NW and 3010 Johnson Avenue NW across the street. The rezoning applications for each lot were considered separately by the city council.

The southern lot at 2937 Johnson Avenue NW would have housed all of the town homes, single family homes, and six of the live-work units. Neighbors expressed little opposition to this portion of the project and the City Council voted to pass the rezoning resolution.

The northern lot at 3010 Johnson Avenue NW would have been home to three mixed-use buildings — and was the major focus of neighborhood opposition. A petition against the project collected 77 signatures, so the rezoning resolution needed a supermajority to pass at City Council.

After taking public comments at the council meeting on March 14, four council members (Scott Olson, Kris Gulick, Ann Poe and Ralph Russell) expressed opposition to the project as currently designed. The final rezoning decision was deferred and suggestions were offered to Billick regarding changes that might help a resolution pass.

The suggested changes aren’t financially feasible. And the criticisms the council levied at the project aren’t backed up by modern engineering or urban planning guidelines. Collectively the council’s suggestions would have changed the entire development from the creation of a mixed-use neighborhood center designed around the principles of walkable urbanism into a single story, parking-oriented, retail-only strip mall.

During his comments on rezoning 3010 Johnson Avenue NW, Council member Ralph Russell said that permeable pavers, “don’t work in this climate.” That’s just plain not true.

Council member Ann Poe expressed concern that the development did not fit neighborhood character. She said the two-story buildings containing live-work units were too tall, even though they wouldn’t have been any taller than other structures along the street.

Council members Kris Gulick and Scott Olson concurred with Poe and Russell’s comments regarding 3010 Johnson Avenue NW. All the council members who expressed opposition also said they were deeply concerned about stormwater runoff, even though city engineers made it clear that the project met all the city’s stormwater management guidelines.

During the public comments multiple residents brought up specific concerns that would apply to any attempt to develop 3010 Johnson Avenue NW. One resident, whose house backs up to the lot, complained that mature trees would be destroyed and she would be able to hear the noises of parking cars from the residential parking lot behind the building. Residents who lived along 31st Street NW complained that access to the garages for the mixed-use developed could only be accessed by using 31st Street.

Realistically, neighborhood opposition would have cropped up no matter what project was proposed on 3010 Johnson Avenue NW.

Once again the City Council made a decision based on fear and not facts.

Why the Lincoln Highway Lofts Matter

What Johnson Ave NW looks like now. [Google Street View]

The lofts would have addressed Cedar Rapids desperate need for more missing middle housing. This exemplary project would have made it clear that Cedar Rapids supports small businesses and small local developers. It would have shown the city’s commitment to the kind of high-quality, walkable urban planning upon which healthy, resilient city economies are built. It would have added housing units to an area within walking distance of a full service grocery store and within easy biking distance to downtown.

Instead, all it took was 77 signatures to get City Council to back down from a project that would have created a platform for generations of prosperity on the Northwest side.

This decision undermines the long-term economic vitality of the Northwest side, which is desperately in need of investment. It was a slap in the face to small business owners. It was a rejection of the principals this City Council has advocated for as the basis a strong economy in the EnvisionCR guidelines. It was a decision that hurts the health of Northwest side residents.

The City Council said this would be a great project if it were in Kingston Village or New Bohemia, which is true, but it was also a great project for Johnson Ave NW. Long term economic success for the city of Cedar Rapids means that we invest not just in downtown, core neighborhoods and the edges of our cities but that we invest in existing neighborhoods outside the downtown core too.

Greater Cedar Rapids needs projects like the Lincoln Highway Lofts.