Cedar Rapids Council Bypasses Master Plan for Rec Center

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Some government studies can be barely worth the paper they're written on, a phenomenon of special note when a City Hall study costs $212,999 to complete only then to be ignored.

So it is with the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which was approved by a unanimous vote of the City Council on April 13, 2010, after much study, expert advice, input from the city's professional staff and presentations to the public.

A key recommendation of the plan, authored by consultant GreenPlay LLC, Broomfield, Colo., calls for placing indoor recreation centers in three "signature" city parks, Ellis, Noelridge and Jones.

However, without mention of the master plan's existence, the council unanimously voted on Tuesday not to build a $3 million replacement for the city's flood-ruined and now-demolished Time Check Recreation C

enter in Ellis Park, but instead agreed to build it in back in nearby Time Check Park, 1131 Fifth St. NW, where the former center had been inundated with 14 feet of water during the June 2008 flood.

The vote represents a major shift in thinking. Time and again in the first years after the flood, the council rejected the idea of putting the recreation center back in Time Check Park, which is in the city's 100-year flood plain. In fact, just 11 months ago, the council's Flood Recovery Committee recommended a site for the recreation center in or directly next to Ellis Park just as a council-appointed site selection committee had before it, though not without some public opposition.

After this week's council vote on the rec center, council member Monica Vernon said much can change in a year or two.

"Council members learn, we learn a lot every day," Vernon said. "In a year's time, being out working with neighbors and looking at how our city progresses and what the needs are, I think you grow and change and you change your mind."

"I think it's a new council, a different council now. And I think we are looking at parks differently and looking at community centers differently."

Council members Scott Olson and Ann Poe took office in January and both have backed building the recreation center somewhere other than Ellis Park. At the same time, former council member Chuck Wieneke, who chose not to seek re-election to the west-side council seat that Olson now holds, was a leading opponent of spending public money to build a recreation center in the 100-year flood plain.

Olson on Friday credited the neighborhood leadership of Linda Seger, president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association, as well as residents living around Ellis Park with making a persuasive push to convince city officials to keep the recreation center out of Ellis Park and to move it back where it had been.

Olson called the association a "strengthened" force, and he said it made the case that building the new recreation center off Ellis Boulevard NW next to a residential area would serve as a catalyst for commercial and residential development along the boulevard.

Council member Don Karr, who grew up in the Ellis Boulevard NW area, said that he now has come to believe that the "pristine" nature of Ellis Park makes it an undesirable place for a recreation center.

Asked how residents ever backed putting a swimming pool, for instance, in Ellis Park, both Karr and Olson said Ellis Park's pool is more compatible with the park than a recreation center.

Council member Kris Gulick, an accountant and business consultant with a master's degree in recreation administration, disagreed, saying that recreation centers frequently are put in parks because the land already is publicly owned and because it makes sense to have recreational amenities like pools and ball diamonds and rec centers in the same place.

"I think a recreation facility is perfectly appropriate in a park," said Gulick. "That's why the city's master plan is structured that way. That's the way it's done throughout the country by professionals who design parks."

In the end, he noted, the latest proposal for the new recreation center does put the center in a park, albeit the four-acre Time Check Park where the old center had been, and not the sprawling Ellis Park mentioned in the city's Parks and Recreation Master Plan.

Seger, the neighborhood association president, on Friday said it has been nice to see the City Council shift its thinking on the replacement recreation center and move it closer to where residents live.

Several hundred flood-damaged homes have been bought out and demolished there, particularly between Ellis Boulevard NW and the Cedar River in the Time Check Neighborhood where the recreation center is now headed. However, in the Harrison School area across Ellis Boulevard NW and to the west, many flood-damaged homes have been renovated and new homes are going up where demolitions have taken place.

"You have something moving along there at a very positive pace," Seger said. "So let's try to continue to foster and preserve this goodness."

Council members Vernon, Olson, Poe and Karr actually wanted the recreation center to sit right on Ellis Boulevard NW, where they hoped the recreation center could help spur commercial development.

However, the city since has learned that it agreed with the state Iowa Economic Development Authority after the flood that it would not build on property in the 100-year flood plain where federal Community Development Block Grant funds were used to buy out and demolish flood-damaged property. That was the case on newly vacant lots on Ellis Boulevard NW where the recreation center was slated to go.

Hence, the latest plan now is to build it in Time Check Park, about two blocks from Ellis Boulevard NW on land the city owned before the flood. The site is something of an island, with nearly all the land around it off limits for building because it is in the 100-year flood plain and the city used federal dollars to buy out and demolish flood-damaged properties on it.

For now, the city must still wait and see if the Federal Emergency Management Agency will allow the city to build in the 100-year flood plain using FEMA's $3 million in disaster funds for the project.

City Council members say the city will build the recreation center at the Time Check site one foot above the 100-year flood level as required by federal law and city ordinance, which is a height still 10 or so feet lower than floodwaters reached at the site in 2008. Olson said the city also will buy flood insurance on the building.
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