Historic church demolished for surface parking lot last year
CEDAR RAPIDS – It won’t bring back the historic church that was demolished last year, but advocates hope a new study that shows the Cedar Rapids medical district suffers from a surplus of parking will guide future development decisions.
The parking survey was conducted by the Lakota Group, a Chicago-based firm hired by the MedQuarter medical district in Cedar Rapids to develop the district’s master plan.
A “State of the District” report recently released by the group shows about 8,250 off-street parking spaces are available in surface lots and parking structures in MedQuarter, plus about 700 on-street spaces.
“Based on existing code requirements for parking and occupancy and land use assumptions derived from field observations, current development within the MedQuarter requires approximately 8,100 parking spaces,” the report noted. “Estimated parking available on private property in the MedQuarter exceeds what is required by City code by approximately 150 spaces, and is supplemented by on-street parking.”
Together, those 850 surplus private and on-street spaces not only go far beyond what the code requires, but exceed what is desirable for the type of development MedQuarter leaders hope to attract.
The study notes that based on the review of city code, existing parking requirements are not calibrated to a walkable, mixed-use environment where shared parking should be encouraged.
“As new development is proposed, parking requirements should be reexamined, and opportunities for reduced parking or shared parking should be explored to help encourage development density in the MedQuarter,” the report stated.
The medical district has held two open house forums to gather input on the direction of the district, but those have only happened this year, after the immense Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa medical mall was built – blocking the connection of Second Avenue SE to downtown Cedar Rapids – and the historic First Christian Church was demolished to make way for a surface parking lot for the PCI building.
At the time, advocates who hoped to save the church asked for a parking study to show that a need existed for more spaces.
Celebrated architect Louis Sullivan was a consultant on the church, which was dedicated in 1913, and glass artist Louis Millet designed the building’s stained glass windows.
A spokeswoman for St. Luke’s Hospital, which purchased the church to make way for 40 parking spots for the PCI medical mall, said at the time that “while preserving the history of our city is an important endeavor, it must be done in a balanced manner to not impede progress.”
Apparently that “progress” with surface parking lots could actually hinder the development of the medical district.
According to the Lakota Group’s report: “Many think that the amount of surface
parking negatively impacts the aesthetic character of the district. With so much parking available, some are concerned that the MedQuarter is over-parked.”
The report goes on to say that “in the future, the dedication of a large amount of land to surface parking may reduce investment opportunities in the district.”
Maura Pilcher, vice president of Save CR Heritage, the advocacy group that tried to buy First Christian Church to save it from demolition, said the parking study was something the group requested before the church was razed.
“We asked for an appropriate study instead of using an assumption,” she said. “They openly admitted they didn’t have one.”
Pilcher said she hopes the study will be used to guide future decisions in the district.
“It’s too bad, though, we can’t bring that building back,” she said. “Once you tear it down, it’s gone.”
Now, that parking lot is one of several where vacant spots can be seen a majority of the day.
The study cited 80 parking facilities located within the MedQuarter district, including the new PCI parking ramp, paid for through tax increment financing.
For the usage study, surface parking lots located between Third Avenue and Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street and 10th Street SE were selected as a representative sample of MedQuarter parking lots.
According to the report, the percent of spaces occupied in each lot was noted at six different times throughout the day. When determining parking lot usage, less than 80 percent lot fill indicates an excess of available parking, while greater than 80 percent lot fill indicates a shortage of parking. In general, at 80 percent lot fill, drivers circulate more to find a parking space, leading to the perception that the lot is full.
Observations of the study include:
• Although the usage of some individual lots fluctuated throughout the day, the combined usage consistently stayed around 50 percent throughout the day – well below 80 percent lot fill benchmark.
• Maximum usage of all lots studied was about 59 percent full.
• Usage is lowest at the beginning and end of the day.
• Most lots were observed at maximum usage in the mid-morning around 10 a.m., and several clusters of adjacent lots exhibited similar usages at 10 a.m.
• There was a difference of only 8.61 percent between maximum and minimum usage during the study times.
The report noted that these observations also imply that the businesses served by existing MedQuarter parking lots may have a surplus of parking, and that sufficient parking is available throughout the MedQuarter, even when parking lot usage is at a maximum under current demand.
Another portion of the Lakota Group report cited six buildings in the medical district that are on the National Register of Historic Places: the Douglas House (including the Grant Wood Studio,) Averill House, Ausadie Building, Calder Houses and the Brewer House.
“Other notable culturally significant structures within the district include Daniel Arthur’s Restaurant building, which is one of the few remaining historic mansions on 3rd Avenue,” the report stated.
Around the same time First Christian Church was demolished, St. Luke’s also razed one of the other few remaining mansions on Third Avenue SE. The late-1800s mansion-turned-apartment building next door to the church, which the hospital purchased for $447,000, was demolished because it had “become dilapidated” in the two years after it was bought, representatives of St. Luke’s said at the time.
The Lakota Group report notes: “The MedQuarter is home to a number of identifiable
landmarks, including a number of historic buildings, some iconic new buildings, cultural institutions, churches, and large hospital buildings. These and other elements contribute to the existing character and condition.”
At the open house forum last week, Ted Townsend, CEO of St. Luke’s and chairman of the medical Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District, cited the importance of receiving feedback on the forthcoming master plan, early on.
“We want to get public input from anyone and everyone about these concepts,” Townsend said.
Prior to the demolition of First Christian Church and at least a dozen other buildings in the medical district, however, Townsend and other representatives of St. Luke’s declined to participate in a public forum about historic preservation, saying it was “premature.”
Since then, not only have the church and other buildings been razed, but medical district leaders blocked an effort to nominate a neighboring portion of the district to the National Register of Historic Places. The proposed Automobile Row Historic District was cited in the Lakota Group’s report, with a note that the city decided not to pursue the designation.
Coming full circle, the report states, “Recently, there has been concern in the community about demolition of structures in the MedQuarter. Much of the strong reaction about historic preservation has been in response to the demolition of buildings to construct new parking facilities.”