Planning Commission delays vote on Harrison rezoning after School District surprises city with new promise
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — After overturning a task force recommendation to update Harrison Elementary and ignoring thousands of petition signatures and numerous residents who spoke out at School Board meetings, and despite reiterating their intent to demolish the historic, solid school, a Cedar Rapids School District representative said the district will actually listen this time.
The comments from Chad Schumacher, the school district’s director of operations, came during a City Planning Commission meeting in which the district requested a zoning change that would allow them to demolish the architecturally significant Harrison Elementary and replace it with a new school.
Ultimately, the commission voted to table the rezoning until their February meeting.
Schumacher did not promise that the district would change course on their demolition plans, but told the six commission members that the School Board will be hiring a consultant to let them know how to proceed on their next bond referendum after voters overwhelming rejected their $220 million proposal in November. As part of that process, he said, the consultant would solicit input from Harrison and Madison Elementary families.
He urged the commission to recommend that the City Council approve the rezoning request, from T-R1, Traditional Residential Single Unit District, to P-IN, Public Institutional, which is needed due to the footprint of the proposed school at 1310 11th St. NW.
Save CR Heritage volunteers assisted in collecting petition signatures from the neighborhood and found residents overwhelmingly opposed demolishing the iconic school, particularly when northwest Cedar Rapids lost so many buildings after record flooding in 2008.
During the planning commission meeting, city staff did not acknowledge the number of neighborhood petition signatures, nor did they say how many residents sent messages in opposition to the rezoning.
Members of the audience listen during the City Planning Commission meeting on Jan. 4, 2024. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
Neighbors, such as Megan Bartos, said the rezoning will irreversibly change the character of the neighborhood by “downgrading” from the architecturally significant school to a generic office-style building, with a broader footprint, and accompanying increase in traffic.
Bartos, who regularly walks her dog past Harrison, questioned why the district would demolish a structurally sound building. “Some of the materials used to build Harrison are no longer available,” she said, citing old-growth wood that is much more durable than modern components. “Nothing they build now will compare to this school.”
Like many of her neighbors who work during the day, Bartos was unable to attend the planning commission meeting, held the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 4, but several other residents spoke against the rezoning at the meeting.
Dean Spina, a Cedar Rapids attorney, cited Iowa code that allows the historic nature of a neighborhood to be taken into consideration in zoning, and suggested the commission look at plans the Northwest Neighborhood adopted in 2017 before making a recommendation on the rezoning.
“Preservation of those neighborhoods should be a cornerstone,” Spina said, calling the design of the new school that was included in the presentation “astonishingly sterile,” and adding that the land use in the neighborhood plan cites a focus on maintaining structures.
Stacie Johnson of Cedar Rapids cited the $500,000 that the School District paid to include similar design elements of Harrison in the neighboring Northwest Recreation Center. She also asked about runoff from the increased areas of parking.
Ann Rosenthal, a mechanical engineer who previously served on the Cedar Rapids Board of Education, said the rezoning request is premature, given that the School District had indicated Harrison would be demolished. “It’s hard to know how forthright they’re really being,” she said. “I hope the city values the historic nature of this building and your role as stewards of that history in our community.”
Larry Ullrick, who had attended Harrison, questioned claims that a new school would “revitalize” the neighborhood when a school is already on the site.
Mary Tresnak of Cedar Rapids said the northwest neighborhood had already lost so much of their culture after the flood, that destroying their architecturally significant school “would be devastating.”
Tresnak, who lives near the new Trailside Elementary under construction in northeast Cedar Rapids, said she would have been afraid to attend such a large school like that when she was young. She reminded the commission of the demolition of Union Station in downtown Cedar Rapids, which is still cited as a mistake, decades later, and noted that she participated in a demonstration in support of Harrison in October, in hopes of preventing a similar fate.
“The children coming out of school were thanking us for trying to save their school building,” Tresnak said, adding that parents and neighbors were also overwhelmingly supportive. “Older buildings give people a sense of place and connection. Once they’re demolished, we don’t get do-overs.”
A Hiawatha woman who attended private schools said she trusts the School Board to make the right decisions, and Don Taylor, who served on the Harrison/Madison Task Force, said that the committee voted to keep a school at the Harrison site, but omitted that the group had recommended keeping and updating the historic Harrison building itself. The city staff report also omitted the task force recommendation to update Harrison.
Therese Smith, vice president of Save CR Heritage, cited climate change among the reasons Harrison should be kept in use. (See full statement, at end.)
In addition to the nearly 60 signatures gathered over the holidays in targeted areas, about half of which were from residents within 200 feet of the school property – the only property owners whose objections are formally considered in rezoning – Save CR Heritage gathered more than 3,000 signatures during two petition drives for Harrison last year, and voters resoundingly rejected the School District’s bond referendum in November.
While the November bond vote did not include Harrison, some residents said they voted “no” in response to the School Board ignoring their voices. The School Board cited cost-savings, but the proposed new school is already $5 million over budget, and must make cuts.
Save Cedar Rapids Heritage works to preserve our city’s historic resources through education, assistance, advocacy and action. Our non-profit group’s efforts to save the historic Harrison Elementary School have received widespread community support, from Harrison neighbors and beyond.
We gathered more than 3,000 signatures in two petition drives in 2023: one asking that the Harrison bond issue be put to voters and the other asking the School Board to reconsider its decision to demolish Harrison, a rare English Tudor/Gothic building, which is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and instead adopt the task force recommendation to update the structurally sound building.
Our volunteers assisted Harrison neighbors in gathering petition signatures over the holidays to present to you, which shows overwhelming opposition to the Cedar Rapids School District’s rezoning request. Of the nearly 60 signatures from targeted areas, about half live within 200 feet of Harrison. After the city lost so much to flooding and the derecho, these neighbors do not want their iconic school destroyed, as well, only to be replaced with a generic, sprawling building. While the city staff report cites concerns over the demolition of Harrison, but not about the rezoning, the two are intertwined. The demolition of Harrison and construction of a modern office-style building will irreversibly change the character of the neighborhood, result in increased traffic and completely negate the investment in the Northwest Recreation Center that emulated the historic architecture of Harrison.
Approving this rezoning contradicts the city’s historic preservation and “green” initiatives by sending a solid brick building to the landfill, against the wishes of the neighborhood and city at large. The staff report also cites the School Board’s claims of cost-savings to build new, but already, costs have ballooned $5 million over initial estimates. Voters in November sent a strong message when they resoundingly rejected the School District’s bond referendum and while Harrison was not included in that measure, we have heard from residents who said their opposition was in response to the School Board’s still unexplained vote to demolish the school, which was never even an option the task force was asked to consider. Harrison can, and should, be kept as a school for future generations of students to be inspired by its unique architecture that is simply irreplaceable.
Please support the Harrison neighborhood, and recommend that the City Council deny this rezoning.