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05.27.12

We Need to Invest in Livable Communities

OPINION

The following editorial appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Joseph Tursi is an architect at OPN and is treasurer of the American Institute of Architects Iowa Chapter board of directors.

Cedar Rapids is in the midst of an unprecedented period of reinvention. Across the city, major post-flood projects such as the library and New Bo City Market are kicking into high gear. Meanwhile, work on other important initiatives — the federal courthouse, Paramount Theatre restoration, Juvenile Justice Center, and the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, to name a few — is nearing completion.

Taken individually, these projects signify Cedar Rapids’ remarkable recovery. Collectively, they set the stage for Cedar Rapids to explore a holistic approach to urban renewal that will impact the health and economic vitality of the region.

At the American Institute of Architects Iowa Chapter (AIA Iowa) spring meeting in Ames last month, architects explored their vision for livable communities, based on such principles as preserving urban centers, protecting environmental resources, encouraging mixed-use development, and creating a neighborhood identity.

Rather than focusing on the design of a single building, architects must study and understand the community or neighborhood as a whole. Cities and towns exist to make sure they address the issues of their citizens, which means considering transportation options, revitalizing older neighborhoods, and designing spaces in which people will get out of their cars and walk to the grocery store or park, meeting neighbors along the way.

By giving historic buildings and neighborhoods new life, Iowa communities make an investment in their citizens. This is sustainability at its best and these considerations affect not just Iowans’ enjoyment of their communities, but their physical and emotional health as well.

Cedar Rapids has an incredible opportunity to create a more livable community — and expand its economy at the same time. This city, like the rest of the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City Corridor, has a wealth of historic buildings in the core of our community. When revitalized, the assessed valuation in these districts commonly increases 10 fold in a few short years. This is a benefit to the building owners, the local government and the taxpayer.

These neighborhoods and mixed-use buildings can be more expensive to develop, which means that developers and building owners sometimes need incentives to make the projects economically viable. For these neighborhoods to be successful, they cannot be developed as individual projects in isolation. They require collaborative effort to plan, organize, set standards, invest, promote and incentivize development.

But the result can be a dramatic change in taxable valuations, realizing a quick and substantial return on investment for all involved.

Encouraging communities across Iowa to work in collaboration with building owners, the local government, architects and community leaders is good for the region, and for the entire state. The ability to attract and retain talented individuals and businesses increases exponentially when citizens can look around and say “This is where I live, and I’m proud of it.”