CEDAR RAPIDS – The Cedar Rapids City Council voted tonight to stabilize the Knutson Building, with one caveat: the public needs to come up with $2.5 million to fund restoration of the historic structure.
With only Justin Shields opposing the measure, the council agreed to make about $167,500 in repairs to “mothball” the building, at 525 Valor Way SW, until a plan is in place for repurposing the former scrap metal site.
The deadline for such a plan is April 2017, by which time funding must be secured to move ahead with restoration work.
Members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and Save CR Heritage spoke in favor of saving the building, constructed in 1887 as a condensed milk factory and one of the oldest commercial buildings on the west side of Cedar Rapids.
Amanda McKnight Grafton, chair of the commission, noted that the building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places for both its architecture and for a historic event taking place there, which tells the story of the city’s industrial growth. That eligibility qualifies the building for state and federal historic tax credits, to help with the cost of restoration.
Former council member Chuck Wieneke spoke against saving the building, citing it as an “eyesore” and an “insult to taxpayers” to put any more money into the building. The city purchased the site in 2012 for $1.5 million, which included the cost to relocate the scrap metal business.
Since then, the roof has failed, but the building’s walls are sound, according to a structural study completed this month. Wieneke argued that it “was time for the building to go,” but city historian Mark Stoffer Hunter countered that this wasn’t “just an old building.”
“There is a difference between old buildings and something that’s historically significant,” said Stoffer Hunter, a member of both the Historic Preservation Commission and Save CR Heritage. The Knutson Building was constructed with local materials and designed by a local architect who also designed the former Dragon Restaurant in downtown Cedar Rapids, as well as several schools.
He cited New Bohemia, Kingston Village and Czech Village as areas revitalized after the 2008 flood, where historic buildings are now valued. “We’re preserving the old and creating new at the same time,” he said.
Council member Shields agreed with Wieneke’s assessment, but other council members spoke in favor of saving the building, with Monica Vernon arguing the most passionately for preservation.
“Our default should be that we save and that we stabilize,” she said. “Our default should be investment.”
Vernon, who holds an MBA, cited economic reasons for historic preservation, including surveys that show people in their 20s and 30s prefer to work in offices with exposed brick and other architectural features found only in older buildings. “The investment will come back 10-fold and 20-fold,” she said.
Beth DeBoom, president of Save CR Heritage, said she appreciated the multi-faceted angles the council covered regarding the Knutson Building.
“I have been waiting forever for a council discussion like that,” she said, after the meeting.