News Column

New uses sought on the riverfront

June 28, 2014

By Rick Smith, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

June 28--CEDAR RAPIDS -- Two of the city's oldest remaining flood-damaged warehouse buildings -- as visible as ever now that there is a new city outdoor amphitheater next door on the westside riverfront -- have climbed to the top of the local restoration list.

The city of Cedar Rapids, owner of the Knutson Building, and Linn County, owner of the Mott Building, are planning to seek proposals in tandem from developers interested in restoring the historic buildings for a new uses, city and county officials said this week.

Those officials said developers are waiting for a shot at the two century-plus-old brick structures.

Mark Stoffer Hunter, Cedar Rapids historian and a member of the city's Historic Preservation Commission, said Friday that the Knutson Building, built in 1887 as condensed milk plant, and the Mott Building, built in 1900 as shop for farm windmill production, were part of an industrial district on the west side of the river that emerged after the west-bank town of Kingston became part of Cedar Rapids in 1870-71.

In the past couple of years, the City Council has tagged this area across the Cedar River from downtown as Kingston Village, in a salute to its history.

"The Knutson and Mott buildings are our last reminders of that west-bank riverfront industry that was pretty diverse at one time," Stoffer Hunter said. "We're advocating for preserving both buildings and having them be assets for the Kingston Village."

On Monday, the City Council's Development Committee will hear a proposal by the city's Community Development Department planning staff to begin the process of seeking proposals from developers willing to renovate the building.

Thomas Smith, one of the city's planners, this week identified Hobart Historical Restoration of Cedar Rapids as one company that has inquired about acquiring the Knutson Building.

Jim Hobart, a consultant for the family's restoration business, said Friday that Hobart Historical Restoration is interested in the Knutson Building and the Mott Building.

Hobart said the city-owned Knutson Building is the more challenging of the two restoration projects because:

-- The building is in poorer shape.

-- It will need to be elevated at least several feet to avoid flooding.

-- It will need to wait for the design of the city's flood protection system to see how the structure fits into it.

In a memorandum to the City Council's Development Committee, planner Smith said another option for the Knutson Building would be to move it rather than elevate it if the move is within 100 yards of its current location.

A move of greater distance would harm its historic character along the river, he said.

Hobart said he envisioned the two-story building becoming market-rate apartments with the possibility of some office or commercial area on the first floor. The basement, which in recent years as been a salvage yard office and a bar, could serve as a concession area and restroom facility to support the city's riverfront amphitheater and trail system, he said.

"If somebody comes up with a better idea, we're all for looking at it," Hobart said.

Hobart, who has participated in two historic warehouse redevelopment projects in downtown Dubuque, said Linn County's three-story Mott Building is in better shape than the city's Knutson Building and so may command more interest from developers.

He said the property would support a mixed-use renovation that could include market-rate apartments and office or commercial space. But he added that the downtown area needs more market-rate apartments than office and commercial space right now.

"The bottom line is to get these revitalized and back to being productive buildings," Hobart said.


The Knutson and Mott buildings likely would have been long gone if city and county officials had been able to pursue earlier plans for the properties.

In the mid-1990s, the Cedar Rapids City Council intended to buy the Knutson Building and demolish it as part of a cleanup when the city was building its new police station next door. However, the council was unwilling to pay the price asked by the owner, a salvage-yard operator.

The 2008 flood did nothing to close the riverfront salvage business, and, by October 2012, the City Council decided to buy it for $1.5 million so a salvage yard wasn't sitting next the city's new riverfront amphitheater and riverside trail and park, which were about to open.

As for the Mott Building just to the south of the Knutson Building, Linn County purchased it in 1994 for $390,000 with the plan to build a new county administration building on the site. That never happened.

Beth DeBoom, president of Save CR Heritage, said Friday not all city officials were enamored with the Knutson Building or thought about saving it after the flood. But she said they came around.

"I have a beautiful photo, taken from the dark interior of the Knutson Building, that shows the view of the downtown skyline," DeBoom said. "I think the preservation community offered the city a different lens for viewing the building. ... City officials have really seemed to grow fond and even protective of the building."

Historian Stoffer Hunter said he prefers the option that would elevate the Knutson Building away from flood risk rather than moving it. Elevating it, he said, will put its roofline more in line with the Mott Building to the south.

"They will have a presence together," he said.

Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson said Friday that Linn County and the city intentionally are seeking proposals at the same time on the Knutson and Mott buildings to help if one developer has a plan for both properties at once.

Oleson said getting the highest price for the Mott Building isn't the priority. The wish, he said, is to get the best project for what he called this "unique spot on the river and in the downtown."

The property-disposition program ahead for the Knutson and Mott buildings has been used several times by the city in the past few years as it has moved to sell property acquired in the city's flood-recovery buyout program or to sell other excess city property.

The city is a little further along in that property-disposition process as it seeks proposals for development on the former Iowa Irons Works property on 12th Avenue SE in New Bohemia, across from the new Geonetric Inc. office building; for a riverfront site on Ellis Boulevard NW near Ellis Park; and for the chipping green area at Ellis Golf Course.

The City Council's Development Committee next week also will consider going out for development proposals for the entire 400 block of First Street SW in Kingston Village.


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