The Oak Hill neighborhood is one of Cedar Rapids’ oldest established neighborhoods. Located on the east side of the Cedar River and south of downtown, the area was first developed by Czech and Slovak immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Like most Midwest urban centers, Cedar Rapids saw much of its population growth during the nineteenth century from the settlement of various European immigrant groups. Originally the name “Oak Hill” was used to describe the entire southeastern section of Cedar Rapids. Tradition has it that the name resulted from the presence of several varieties of oak trees native to the area. Later the term was generally applied to the area located south of Oak Hill Cemetery and Mt. Vernon Road.
In its early years, Oak Hill developed a mixture of residential and industrial properties. The area included the former industries such as Iowa Steel and Iron and Farmstead Foods which, along with the railroads and businesses in the Czech Village across the river, provided long-term, stable employment.
Though once a thriving area, the neighborhood has undergone substantial changes since the late sixties. Oak Hill lost nearly half of its population in a 30-year period, leaving a large proportion of senior citizens. The family poverty rate rose dramatically while unemployment remained high during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Nearly one-third of the housing units were demolished to make way for industrial and hospital expansion and owner-occupancy rates for housing remained low. Meanwhile, the closing of adjacent industrial plants and the decline of the neighborhood’s commercial areas along Third Street and 14th Avenue had a negative impact on Oak Hill’s image.
In 1999 the City of Cedar Rapids and stakeholders and businesses participated in an Image Preference Survey, and a Neighborhood “Master Plan” was prepared by residents. The plan incorporated such ideas as the redevelopment of “brownfield” sites, suggested locations for neighborhood commercial activities, and encourage specific trail and river front improvements. These plans were designed to make the Oak Hill area more “livable” for residents and attractive for future residential and commercial development.
Following this process, the NewBo Third Street Arts and Entertainment District Plan was born, focusing on redevelopment ideas for the former industrial areas and existing commercial spaces. The group has a vision of creating a diverse neighborhood, “NewBo District”, within the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood that attracts artists, entrepreneurs, and residents from all walks of life to work, live and visit through an environment that embraces creativity, diversity, and new technologies. The layout of the NewBo District Commercial District places it in the center of downtown, the Czech Village and the residential areas of Oak Hill.
These efforts inspired the NewBo Park Committee, which began the design of a new central public community space in the neighborhood, and helped lead to NewBo District being designated as an Arts and Cultural District. This designation allowed the area to move forward with plans to create a public arts venue to showcase the growing local interest in the arts. NewBo District’s resident-initiated resurgence, along with the neighboring Czech Village, led to their joint designation as an Iowa Main Street Community by the Iowa Department of Economic Development, which provided access to state funds devoted specifically to preserving and improving the historic character of the neighborhoods.
Prior to the 2008 floods, Oak Hill Jackson/New Bohemia was fast becoming a model in resident-driven redevelopment in partnership with government and the private sector.
Oak Hill, like the city’s other riverfront neighborhoods, was devastated by the 2008 floods. A substantial portion of the residential housing was rendered uninhabitable, and the remaining core industry was heavily-impacted. The commercial core and supporting civic infrastructure also experienced heavy damage. While the damage did not eliminate the progress that had been made, the resulting human and financial costs of the recovery effort have substantially limited progress.
The Neighborhood Planning Process identified several key priorities for the neighborhood’s redevelopment initiatives. Housing was first among these. There was a lack of affordable housing in the Oak Hill neighborhood prior to the flood, a situation only worsened by the disaster. The Oak Hill area requires a considerable number of single family homes to provide the stable base of long-term residents necessary to support local growth. However, many damaged homes remain unoccupied, and are not likely to be renovated until flood plain decisions, flood control programs and available financing options are determined. The potential need to remove historically significant structures in the post-flood reconstruction may impact the area’s designation as a historic district, which could further limit redevelopment funding options and undercut one of the core strengths of the pre-flood redevelopment efforts.
The Planning Process also identified a strong need for interim and long-term flood protection. The city has created an Interim Flood Plan in an effort to provide some stability for preliminary redevelopment efforts, but complexity and cost make interim flood protection capable of managing another 2008-level event unfeasible. Long-term plans to manage the river via dikes, dams and green space would greatly impact existing commercial parking options and impede the public use of the river near the neighborhood. The completion of long-term flood plain planning for this area will not be completed quickly, and the resulting uncertainties will create barriers to homeowners wishing to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, which will be required for those desiring to rebuild in unprotected areas.
Inconsistencies in the local zoning regulations and building codes made it difficult to improve the condition of homes in this neighborhood before the floods, and new rules that will be required when flood plain designations are made could further complicate that situation. Uncertainties surrounding zoning codes have caused a potentially unnecessary loss of historic properties, and expected delays in finalizing post-flood rules are likely to lead to additional losses as properties in disrepair deteriorate further. Opportunities to rebuild single family housing, and to assemble lots needed for multi-family in-fill housing, are dependent upon pending zoning decisions. Private and commercial redevelopment efforts are similarly limited by uncertainties surrounding the disposition of former industrial properties that will not be re-inhabited by previous tenants. Many of the largest properties are considered “brownfields” now that they are abandoned, and will require EPA approval and federal funding for cleanup before redevelopment can take place.
And finally, the Planning Process also identified a need for new approaches to “selling” the neighborhood to commercial developers. The creation of a “warehouse district” on the edge of the neighborhood offers opportunities for innovative commercial and business development with the potential to harness the area’s creative energy, but such development must be undertaken in conjunction with planning for the housing and other opportunities that will be required to support economic growth. Such development may require new and unconventional financing approaches, as well as innovative public-private partnerships, to succeed.
The residents and businesses of Oak Hill Jackson/NewBo District have established several coalitions, such as the New Bohemia Group, to promote progress despite the current long-term uncertainties. These efforts by local businesses, property owners, and cultural groups have won accolades for their efforts to date, and drawn the attention of city planners. By coming to agreement and driving the neighborhood vision in conjunction with the many processes initiated during the Neighborhood Planning Process, the residents of Oak Hill Jackson/New Bohemia are helping to ensure that required changes in housing, zoning and commercial development will take into account that vision. While funding for the types of culturally-centered development the neighborhood was pursing prior to the floods will be more difficult to acquire given the new and competing priorities citywide, the constructive commitment of residents and businesses to pursue a mixed-use, arts-centered neighborhood greatly improve the likelihood of success.
Despite the challenges faced, NewBo District/Oak Hill Jackson is once again poised to become a vibrant, diverse neighborhood. Businesses are in the process of returning and there is a strong commitment to the vision and mission of the Cultural District. NewBo District has been designated as one of three Iowa Urban Main Street Projects in 2009, and the stakeholders of New Bohemia actively contributed to the Neighborhood Planning Process and challenged the City of Cedar Rapids and its leaders to continue to pursue innovative redevelopment options. The energy of the residents of NewBo District and the investment being drawn to the area is helping to leverage resources to the surrounding Oak Hill neighborhood as well.
Private developers began replacing single-family homes just after the floods, and that work continues. The decision has also been made to re-locate the Federal Courthouse to this neighborhood, and the groundbreaking has already occurred. Community Development staff are working with the members of the City Planning Commission and the community to introduce, discuss and adopt urban design principles and best practices in design to guide the redevelopment of the area. The City’s Infill task force is working with a variety of developers, including the NDCCR and the Southside Investment Board, to assure that all avenues for obtaining funding will be explored. Such collaborations greatly improve the odds of success in meeting the neighborhood’s ambitious redevelopment goals.
Oak Hill Jackson/New Bohemia benefits from substantial investment interest, and substantial opportunities. Given the strong involvement of neighborhood residents, committed landowners and existing business interest, it is hoped that much of the redevelopment in this area will occur in the private sector.
However, NDCCR is aware that redevelopment on this scale will require financing expertise and planning experience, especially give the competition for funds and scope of the work. NDCCR will lend its expertise, contacts and assistance in these areas to neighborhood groups, non-profits, the city and private developers alike. As private development progresses, NDCCR will monitor opportunities and needs, especially unmet needs for affordable multi-family housing and small business facilities. If appropriate development opportunities arise that can address needs that are not being met by private efforts, NDCCR will be there to help undertake them.
Additionally, former industrial sites within the NewBo area of Oak Hill that were previously abandoned, as well as those abandoned after the flood, may not be attractive to private developers due to EPA designations and potential clean-up costs. NDCCR will look closely at these areas, and where possible pursue redevelopment options that may be suitable for a nonprofit where private investors would not otherwise be interested.