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Cedar Rapids commits $10 million in federal pandemic funds to flood control system

Kate Payne / IPR
A view of the Cedar River from the northwestern side of Cedar Rapids, where city officials plan to use $10 million in pandemic relief funding to help pay for a flood control system.

The city of Cedar Rapids will allocate $10.2 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funding to help pay for its Flood Control System. The city is in the process of building the sprawling network of flood gates and levees that will also serve as a riverfront park and trail system.

At long last, the city of Cedar Rapids has found a way to secure federal money for flood control projects on the west side of the Cedar River: pandemic relief funding.

“We’re going to speed up the flood protection that we had planned already,” Mayor Brad Hart said at a press conference Monday. “Despite the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers funding has only been available for east side projects, the city has always been committed to building flood protection on the west side too.”

The city’s northwest side, which was inundated by murky, contaminated river water in 2008, had fallen victim to the federal government’s cost-benefit analysis, which weighs the price of building flood protection structures against the value of residents’ homes and properties.

In the wake of the flood, the Army Corps of Engineers would only fund projects on the wealthier east side of the river, home to downtown, the Quaker Oats plant and other industrial employers. The Corps declined to fund the city’s system on the west side, historically home to blue-collar workers who kept the city’s rail and grain industries running.

With construction well underway in the NewBo and Czech Village neighborhoods downstream, the federal pandemic relief funds will help the city begin work a few years ahead of schedule in the Time Check neighborhood, with projects along Ellis Boulevard and O Avenue expected to start in 2022 and 2023.

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Kate Payne / IPR
This house on 1st NW in Cedar Rapids is the only one left on the block, after the city bought out scores of flood damaged homes in the wake of the 2008 flood. City staff estimate about a dozen property owners who are in the way of the flood control system have not yet taken the city's voluntary buyout.

Rob Davis, the city’s flood control program manager, says speeding up the timeline will hold down inflation. The entire project is expected to cost $550 million, or up to $750 million when factoring in inflation over the estimated 20-year construction timeline.

“We really want to stay ahead of inflation as best we can because there’s still a lot of work to do,” Davis said. “We are looking, with the Army Corps of Engineers, where the east side will be done later this decade. So this … this is a big deal because it can … really helps make sure we’re on schedule for completing this.”

City officials envision the flood control system as not a fortress separating the city from the river, but a feat of engineering incorporated into a system of trails and green space that will protect residents while connecting them to the river.

“We hope it’s never used for its primary purpose of flood control, or at least not used very often,” said City Councilmember Tyler Olson, who chairs the Flood Control System Committee. “We hope it’s used by the members of the Time Check neighborhood and citizens all across the community to walk and bike and really enjoy the river and engage with the river.”

Local business owner Al Pierson said he “couldn’t be happier” about the new funding. Pierson, who is also president of the Northwest Neighbors neighborhood association, says the funding announcement “validates” his decision to reopen his flower shop on Q Avenue and to move into a home on the river.

“People are reluctant to take the risk. But I think that they’re going to see this and they’ll start making plans and all of a sudden it’ll be a hot neighborhood,” he said. “At least that’s my outlook.”

More than 10 years after the flood, entire blocks in this part of town remain vacant, after the city demolished some 1,300 flooded properties as part of a voluntary buyout program (under the terms of the buyout, redevelopment is constrained until protection is in place). Pierson says he’s hopeful that securing the federal funding will boost reinvestments that are already underway.

“There are three or four developers planning to build 36 unit townhouses along Ellis. The grocery store. Commercial. Restaurants,” he said. “So things are starting to happen. And people are looking ahead to the flood protection coming with the knowledge that they’ll be safe.”

While speeding up construction timelines is expected to provide more protection sooner, it will also add pressure to the dozen or so property owners who are in the way of the flood system and have not yet taken the city’s buyout.

Davis says the remaining property owners will have “ample time” to accept the city’s offer as construction moves ahead. If they don’t voluntarily take the buyout, the city may have to take further action.

“Every year we’ve had a few properties come in. Will they all come in? It’s hard to tell,” Davis said. “What’s really important for the neighborhood is that those [properties] get protected so then the city can start redeveloping that area and make this a more vibrant neighborhood, even more so than it is today.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter