Cedar Rapids considers code violations to historic Knutson Building
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
Just days before proposals are due for redeveloping one of the oldest commercial structures in Cedar Rapids, the city has thrown another wrench in plans to save the Knutson Building.
A memo issued by John Riggs, manager of the city’s Building Services Department, notes that the roof is leaking, causing deterioration throughout the structure, located along the Cedar River at 525 Valor Way SW.
The city is posting a “Do Not Enter” sign and may issue a notice to correct violations on its own building.
Adam Lindenlaub, Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization manager in the Cedar Rapids Community Development Department, said the city is proceeding with the request for proposal process.
Bids are due April 13, 2015, but the notice could dissuade potential developers from pursuing redevelopment of the building, which dates back to 1887.
The city’s chief building inspector attended walk-throughs of the building both last summer and in late March, and noticed more damage during the second walk-through, Lindenlaub said.
Since the city took possession of the site in 2012, the building has been secured per city code, he said, meaning doors are locked and any broken windows or doors on the first floor and lower level are boarded.
“The City has been following its standard procedure related to property acquisition/disposition but it is important to note that future flood control plans need to be carefully considered and as a result the process is taking longer than a normal disposition,” Lindenlaub wrote in an email.
At last summer’s walk-through, designed to give prospective developers a look at the property, the building appeared to have not been mucked out after the 2008 flood, with a noticeable stench inside, water in the basement, broken windows on the upper floors and a tree growing from the roof.
That comes as no surprise to former City Council member Don Karr, who said city leaders had been asked to “get rid of” the Knutson Building long ago by at least one downtown business owner, who viewed it as an eyesore.
Karr, who served on the council from 2010 to 2014, was part of the negotiating team for the Knutson Metal Co. property. He said that a structural engineer during the negotiations had noted the building was in solid condition at the time.
“The building was a sound building, with sound footings,” Karr said. “If we could’ve found something wrong with that building, we could’ve negotiated the price down.”
The city purchased the Knutson Metal Co. property in 2012 for $1.5 million, far more than its assessed value of $98,891, according to the City Assessor’s website.
At the time, City Council members cited the owner closing his scrap metal business as part of that expense and the city also wanted to assist with cleanup of the area adjacent to the newly constructed amphitheatre.
Lindenlaub questioned whether a report had been conducted on the structure.
“To my knowledge, a structural report was not performed nor is it standard practice for the City to have one performed during the acquisition process,” he wrote. Karr, however, said the building was examined as part of the negotiations.
Karr said some business leaders had asked for a park where the Knutson property is located and added that he would not be surprised to see the building demolished and a large facility built on the site with restrooms for the amphitheatre.
“They got their wish,” Karr said. “That’s what was going to happen all along.”
Not so, said Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett.
Corbett said the request for proposal process shows that the city is interested in redevelopment of the property.
“There are some people who do think it’s an eyesore and should be torn down,” Corbett agreed, but added that “those are expensive motions to go through” if city leaders were not sincere in their efforts to have the property redeveloped.
“We’ve been open to working with developers,” he said, citing tax increment financing that the city approved for the neighboring Mott Building along the riverfront.
Originally, developers were asked to move or elevate the Knutson Building, but when no bids last year met that expensive requirement, the city reopened the process to allow flood protection to be included in the proposals. Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt said at a City Council meeting that she knew of no basis in any regulations that required the building to be moved or elevated.
Given its current condition, Corbett said the cost of saving the Knutson Building might be too high.
“Unless we have a developer with a very deep pocket, it’s going to require some public participation,” he said. “We’ll know that number after we get those requests for proposals.”
Karr cited the building’s condition after three years of city ownership, and questioned the city’s commitment to historic preservation.
Built as a condensed milk factory, the Knutson Building has also housed a woodworking plant for gunstocks, the Warehouse bar, and a haunted house, in addition to the scrap metal business.
“Those were some of the first jobs for Cedar Rapids,” Karr said of the building’s role in its early years. “That was our industrial base down there. It’s historic.”