Medical District Supporters Cry Foul over Proposed Historic District
CEDAR RAPIDS – Property owners in the city’s medical district could derail, or at least sidetrack, the nomination of a historic district in southeast Cedar Rapids.
Nearly two years ago, the City Council signed a memorandum of agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that called for nominating Automobile Row to the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, medical district supporters are crying foul, saying they didn’t know about the agreement and worry that the historic designation could interfere with their long-range plans for the district.
“This is the development throat coming off the interstate,” Commercial Real Estate Broker Doug Laird said during a March 7 meeting at City Hall. “Are we looking to the future or to history for (the medical district’s) long-term planning?”
If the past is any indication, that future could mean the end for those historic buildings.
A consultant identified 16 contributing structures – those with distinctive architectural character – in the Automobile Row district. One of the 16, the former A-1 Vacuum, 209 Seventh St. SE, is already scheduled for demolition to make way for parking.
Laird said he attended the meeting as “an interested party,” and not as a representative of St. Luke’s Hospital, which assembled property for the Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa medical pavilion, set to open in April.
At least 10 buildings were demolished to make way for PCI’s pavilion and parking, including First Christian Church, which was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. A surface parking lot now occupies that space.
Beth DeBoom, president of Save CR Heritage, said the historic designation should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a hindrance.
The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and other communities embrace historic preservation in their medical campuses, repurposing buildings for guest housing and other uses.
“Preservation does not stand in the way of progress,” DeBoom said, citing the financial incentives that accompany listing on the National Register of Historic Places. “It offers more opportunity for development.”
Because federal funds were used in 2011 to raze the flood-damaged First Street Parkade after it was deemed historic, the government paid for the Automobile Row nomination and a survey of 110 former filling stations and other properties related to the auto industry that were built between 1900 and 1960.
About half of the proposed historic district, from Sixth to 10th streets SE between Second and Third avenues, overlaps the medical district, an expanse of about 50 square blocks located primarily between St. Luke’s and Mercy Medical Center.
City Council members signed the agreement with FEMA in April 2011, but representatives of the medical district said they were caught off-guard by the nomination.
“No one was aware of it,” said John Albert Jr., vice chairman of the medical district’s commission and owner of Citywide Cleaners.
On Feb. 8, the State Nomination Review Committee was scheduled to assess Automobile Row’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places, but the city pulled the nomination from that day’s agenda.
At the March 7 meeting at City Hall, Teri Toye, Historic Preservation Specialist for FEMA, said concerns of property owners prompted the item to be removed from the review committee’s schedule. The agreement had also required a second public meeting, which was mistakenly not held.
“We kind of put the brakes on this project until we could talk to you,” Toye said to a half-dozen people at the meeting, most of whom were medical district supporters.
St. Luke’s CEO Ted Townsend said medical district officials sent a letter of objection to the city about the district’s nomination “because we didn’t know the implications of it.”
The medical district is starting work on its long-range comprehensive plan, he said, and “no one knows exactly how the facilities will be used in the future.”
Mercy CEO Tim Charles was not at the March 7 meeting and said it was premature to comment before he learns more about the historic district.
If more than 50 percent of property owners decide they do not want the district nomination to proceed, the state nominations review committee could still review the application and send it on to the National Park Service, which makes the final determination. But the area would not be listed as a historic district.
Owners of contributing structures in historic districts can be eligible for state and federal historic preservation tax credits. Already, some of the property owners in the proposed historic district have been looking into accessing tax credits, Toye said, adding that without the district, those owners could not get financial incentives to rehabilitate their buildings.
“It’s a big accomplishment to get a property listed on the Register,” said Beth Foster Hill, National Register coordinator for the State Historical Society of Iowa.
When asked by medical district representatives at the meeting, she said property owners can do what they want with buildings on the Register, including demolition, unless federal funds are used, or unless the city places the properties in a local landmark district that has a review process for significant exterior changes.
FEMA will work with the city to decide the next steps regarding the memorandum of agreement. Other groups, including the Linn County and Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation Commissions and Lincoln Highway Association also signed the agreement and would need to sign off on any changes.
Dick Thomas, a member of both the Lincoln Highway Association and Linn County Historic Preservation Commission, said the Lincoln Highway and its impact on the city deserves to be recognized in Cedar Rapids, in compliance with the agreement city officials signed with FEMA.
“The questions are not about the past, the questions are about the future,” he said, in reference to the medical district. “What are (their) ultimate plans?”