The centerpiece of the Cedar Lake neighborhood is Cedar Lake. Located north of Downtown, the lake is owned by Interstate Power and Light (Alliant Energy) and leased to the City. The 115 acres of water is comprised of two segments, and is actually a river slough that was modified around 1890 to become a cooling lake for the Sixth Street power generating station. While largely an urban neighborhood, the business core of the area is surrounded by some of the city’s oldest homes, and the presence of parks, trails and public space make the neighborhood a popular magnet for residents of surrounding areas.
Long-term planning in the Cedar Lake neighborhood began in 1980 with the development of the Cedar Lake Master Plan. In addition to older homes, there is also considerable commercial development within the neighborhood, largely in the form of small businesses, resale shops, appliance stores, restaurants and a non-profit organization that serves the community. The planning process identified the area as a mixed-use hub of sorts — encouraging the development of a walkable public green space, connected to other areas of the city by trails and bike paths, that preserved the neighborhood aesthetic while increasing low-impact commercial traffic. Additional proposals included acquisition of unused railroad and industrial space along the lake, and the design of passive space for picnic facilities and recreation, a boat launch, public parking and the preservation of wetland areas used by migratory birds.
The primary barrier to developing Cedar Lake as a usable recreation space has been the current uses of the lake. Cedar Lake serves as a sediment trap for approximately 3,250 acres of watershed, including most of the downtown area. Due to its storm water management functions, the lake suffers from high loads of pollutants related to urban run-off. It was one of the first in the state to be identified as an “impaired waterway,” and the Linn County Health Department has maintained long-term fish consumption advisories for the area. At the same time, as a cooling facility for the neighboring power plants, the lake never freezes in winter and provides an abundance of open habitat and food organisms to support and perpetuate wildlife, including large numbers of migratory birds.
In 2005, as part of the Rotary International Centennial Celebration, The Cedar Lake Improvement Project was born. The Rotary clubs recognized the value of Cedar Lakes as an amenity for the community, and wanted to honor the commitment to natural conservation that had been the centerpiece of previous development efforts. They created a plan that included docks and towers that would be home to three wildlife viewing telescopes that would be free to the public. This plan was in process when the 2008 floods arrived.
The residential damage from the flooding was not as severe as in other areas of the city, but the impact on business in this neighborhood has been staggering. The Sixth Street plant was damaged extensively in the flood of 2008, and the decision was made by Alliant to not re-open the facility. The closing of the plant presents a major challenge to the dynamics of Cedar Lake.
In addition to the loss of jobs created by the closing of the power plant, Terex Corporation has announced it will close its doors in 2010, eliminating another 170 local jobs. Several smaller and mid-sized businesses impacted by the flood have also not returned due to economic challenges in rebuilding. Commercial space for small businesses remains vacant, despite fast post-flood attention.
Further complicating matters, many of the remaining local businesses and existing commercial facilities were developed to depend upon the cheap steam heat available from the Sixth Street steam station. With the closing of the station the price of steam skyrocketed — especially for large businesses. After months of negotiations it was decided that individual businesses and organizations that used steam from the Sixth Street station would need to either retrofit their systems or convert to another type of heat. While support programs and financial incentives are being offered to assist with this venture, the costs required for this conversion are drawing heavily upon resources those businesses would otherwise normally use to rebuild and re-invest in the area.
While the neighborhood is returning to normal in respect to housing, the loss of local jobs and commercial anchors, combined with the changes to the lake itself, present new challenges in maintaining the work that has been done around Cedar Lake over the past 30 years. The Linn County Trails Association has historically taken the lead on design, implementation, and expansion of the miles of trails in the area surrounding Cedar Lake. They are committed to continuing to upgrade, maintain and grow the trail systems as a centerpiece in the area. The importance of the existing trails to the community was highlighted within the Neighborhood Planning Process, and efforts are underway to acquire the designation of a Bike Friendly City. Cedar Lake continues to be viewed as a central hub in the efforts to connect the city’s neighborhoods, and the core of a “greenway” through the heart of the city surrounded by recreation, entertainment and small business facilities.
Cedar Lake is a natural connecting point and future plans include maximizing location by possible pedestrian bridges as well as bike bridges connecting Cedar Lake to the Time Check Neighborhood, the Coe and Mount Mercy college campuses, and connecting access to New Bohemia and the Czech Village. The local restaurants, sidewalk cafes and cultural amenities will be just a bike ride or walk away from the colleges.