Four Cedar Rapids Development Projects Approved, Including Downtown Tower

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Four significant development proposals moved ahead Tuesday night with City Council actions: the proposed casino; a new downtown office tower and future headquarters of CRST Inc.; the redevelopment of the empty, flood-damaged former Great Furniture Mart at 600 First St. SE; and the redevelopment of the now-shuttered former warehouse operation of Nash Finch at 1201 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE.

Council votes on the projects were unanimous. Mayor Ron Corbett was away at his son's orientation at Iowa State University.

Jennifer Pratt, a planner in the city's Community Development Department, reported Tuesday night that the development proposals for the casino project and CRST Inc.'s headquarters were the only proposals submitted to the city in the competitive proposal process that the city uses to sell excess city land.

As a result, the City Council Tuesday night voted to direct the city manager to negotiate a development agreement with each of the parties for the purchase of different city-owned property that each seeks.

The casino developer — a 160-plus group of investors led by Cedar Rapids business executives Steve Gray, Drew Skogman, John Smith and Barry Boyer — wants to purchase about 7.5-acres of city-owned land directly across from the downtown on which to build a $100-million casino.

The land, which the city acquired through the flood-recovery property buyout program, sits between Interstate 380 and Second Avenue SW and between First and Third Streets SW. The investor group also is purchasing private property there, but most of the property at the site of the proposed casino site is city-owned.

Pratt noted that any development agreement with the casino investors will feature an option to purchase the land if and when the investors secure a license to build a casino from the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission. The commission expects to make the decision in the first part of 2014, it has said.

One feature of the casino proposal shared by the proposal for CRST Inc.'s new headquarters is that both structures would be built along the Cedar River and incorporate flood walls into their construction able to tie into a city flood protection system if and when it is built, Pratt noted.

The CRST Inc.'s headquarters is proposed for the site of the former First Street Parkade across from Alliant Tower in the 200 block of First Street SE. The project has been proposed by the company's chairman, John Smith, and his real estate entity, Cedar Real Estate Group.

In addition Tuesday night, the City Council directed the city manager to negotiate development agreements with developer Joe Ahmann at the Great Furniture Mart building and the Hunter Companies for the 19-acre former Nash Finch site.

Both developers are seeking tax increment financing to allow them to forego property taxes on the value created by their investment. Ahmann is seeking a 10-year, 100-percent credit valued at about $1.3 million and the Hunter Companies is asking for an eight-year, 100-percent credit valued at about $1 million, Pratt told the council Tuesday night.

Ahmann, who secured a City Hall economic development incentive in December for his upscale office and retail commercial development called The Fountains off Blairs Ferry Road NE, Tuesday night told the council that he plans to use the lower two floors of the Great Furniture Mart building for office and commercial development, the top two floors for market-rate residential condominiums and the basement for tenant parking.

He noted that the brick warehouse building is a "blighted" property that has sat empty and flood-damaged for five years while all around it, including the new federal courthouse and True North Companies transformation of the city's former library, is flourishing.

"This is the last piece of the puzzle that we'd like to get put back in place," Ahmann told the council.

At the same, in arguing for City Hall financial support, he said, "This not an easy project. If it were, something would have been done."

The Hunter Companies' Wade Hiner said last week that the company would demolish the former Nash Finch warehouse buildings in the fall to make way for a mixed-use commercial development if all goes as planned.
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