Bruce Nesmith is a founding member of Strong Towns and professor of political science at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA. Today we're sharing a guest article from his blog, Holy Mountain, considering the trajectory of a historic working class neighborhood in his town.


In my town of Cedar Rapids, IA, we have an upcoming event—Imagine Mound View—hosted by a local group called Corridor Urbanism. It'll be a street fair-cum-tactical urbanism gathering, bringing people to one of Cedar Rapids' most historic, walkable and centrally-located neighborhoods. The event is intended to highlight the potential of this area, and to promote principles consistent with prosperity, inclusion and resilience. But what will actually happen in Mound View over the next 25-100 years will result from the uncoordinated decisions and actions of many people and institutions, much of them taken in an environment that is currently unpredictable.

Mound View is the historic name of a working-class neighborhood on Cedar Rapids' northeast side.

Mound View grew up around small factories and stores, as well as St. Luke's Hospital and Coe College, welcoming Mount Mercy Junior College (now Mount Mercy University) in 1928. The family of the future artist Grant Wood moved here in 1901; he attended the old Polk School and spent his young winters sledding down the steep hill in the 1800 block of B Avenue. (The Mound View Neighborhood Association offers an online walking tour of Wood-related sites.)

Grant Wood lived here. (Source: Google Earth)

Grant Wood lived here. (Source: Google Earth)

The area retains a lot of the advantages of traditional urban form: mixed residential and commercial uses (with some light industrial), a street grid, sidewalks, older styles of houses with porches, a large park, and several gathering places. The two colleges are less than a mile apart, and both have a large number of events and facilities open to the public. Garfield Elementary School and Franklin Middle School are within walking distance. A biking/walking trail was recently constructed that connects on both ends to an emerging county trails network.

For Imagine Mound View, I researched the walking distance from the site to several locations:

The CEMAR trail as it approaches the edge of Mound View, K Ave & 20th St. (Source: Bruce Nesmith)

The CEMAR trail as it approaches the edge of Mound View, K Ave & 20th St. (Source: Bruce Nesmith)

As was the case in a lot of core urban neighborhoods, the last part of the 20th century was not kind to Mound View. Center Point and Oakland Roads were re-designed as one-way, multi-lane throughways. A lot of the factories closed or downsized, as did many of the small stores. (The last grocery store in the area, Hy-Vee, was saved from closing by a $1 million renovation grant from the City of Cedar Rapids in 2000.)

Source: Google Earth

Source: Google Earth

A lot of new construction along 1st and A Avenues used suburban-style large parking lots separating the buildings from the street. As industrial jobs disappeared, people left the area, and what had been single-family housing became vacant or was converted to short-term rentals. Coe College bought and knocked down a couple blocks' worth of housing in the middle of the last decade in preparation for an anticipated expansion. Polk School, which began to experiment with a "year-round" schedule in the late 1990s, was closed and converted to an alternative eduation center about ten years later.

Polk's playgrounds and basketball court remain important gathering places. (Source: Google Earth)

Polk's playgrounds and basketball court remain important gathering places. (Source: Google Earth)

The location and design advantages of Mound View co-exist with very low real estate prices, suggesting there is a rent gap here which could attract future investment. That is, in fact, what drew the attention of Corridor Urbanism. But investment doesn't occur automatically, nor when it does occur is it always benign.

I can imagine three possible futures for Mound View:

Future 1: Deterioration of assets. 

Cedar Rapids is not New York or San Francisco. Regional land prices are low, and there are no mountains or oceans to block physical expansion. Construction of the Highway 100 extension has just opened up many acres at the edge of the city for development. As long as energy prices remain low, there may not be the incentives for private investors in older areas of the city. The remarkable emergence of the New Bohemia neighborhood since 2008 is inspiring to the other core neighborhoods, but probably not specifically replicable.

The colleges have heavily invested in their campuses, but neither is flush enough to fund neighborhood development, nor is the city. The school district's radical proposal to close all existing elementary schools and build new ones means their investment in this area is likely to decrease rather than increase. In the absence of private investment, existing long-term homeowners will continue to hold on, but they won't live forever, and "generational replacement" (social science euphemism) would likely bring dramatic disinvestment to this area within 25 years.

Future 2: Gentrification with displacement.

On the other hand, it's possible that developers will see a potential market in upscale housing here: college or MedQuarter employees, or fitness enthusiasts attracted to the trails and college-based facilities. Mound View could see a surge in condo construction such as New Bohemia and Kingston Village have experienced, and/or new home construction replacing "tear-downs." An increase in property values would be welcome, and a fair amount of housing stock certainly is dilapitated, but would likely price many existing homeowners and renters out of the area. Peter Moskowitz's recent How to Kill a City provides some particularly egregious examples from other parts of the country of government's use of incentives and condemnations in ways that facilitate displacement.

For this reason, I take a strong stand against rebranding Mound View as the College District. I know the colleges are substantial assets just waiting for the neighborhood to leverage them. But rebranding shows lack of respect, not only for the neighborhood's history, but for long-term residents as well.

The best outcome for Mound View will result from investment that improves the neighborhood while allowing it to remain true to its current assets, including its people.

Future 3: Gentrification, gently. 

The best outcome for Mound View will result from investment that improves the neighborhood while allowing it to remain true to its current assets, including its people. The city has begun addressing obstacles to walkability: adding bike lanes to key streets, improving trails and, in the next couple years converting Oakland and Center Point Roads back to two-way albeit only above H Avenue. I'd like to see improved connection to Cedar Lake, either by making H Avenue less dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians where it meets the interstate, or better yet by punching through a connection around E Avenue. The strange intersection north of Coe College could be improved as well, slowing cars but accommodating multiple directions, while improving connection through Coe College to the MedQuarter and downtown with a sidewalk along Coe Road.

The worst of the housing stock should be replaced, but there should still be places for low-income people to live. People should be able to walk to school, shopping and work. Corner stores, small shops and bars would provide public gathering places as well as jobs. New housing construction should fit well with existing stock as well as their streets. Allowing accessory dwelling units would provide a non-disruptive way of increasing density. The school district should commit to keeping a school within walking distance of Mound View children; Coe College should be encouraged to do something with its empty land. A lot of what's needed to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification requires policy decisions at the state or national level [see Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis, Basic Books, 2017, pp 191-215] but strong expectations established by both city government and neighborhood residents couldn't hurt. If we know what we want, and understand the trade-offs involved, we might get it.


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