Cedar Rapids’ Kingston Village sees growth while cornerstone First and First West site long sat empt

Comedian Joe Marino performs Friday during a comedy show at Thew Brewing in Cedar Rapids in the Kingston Village neighborhood. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Against a backdrop of dwindling sunlight and LED-lit downtown buildings, chatter filled Thew Brewing in southwest Cedar Rapids Friday night. Groups small and large clustered around tables and along the bar, beers in hand as some 50 people waited for the lights to dim and the laughter to begin.

A slate of five comedians entertained the diverse crowd until night fell over Kingston Village, the neighborhood on the west bank of the Cedar River. Mahmoud Osman, who goes by the stage name Huta, warned the crowd he might take some jokes too far.

“I just don’t want anyone to come up here and slap me,” he quipped, warming up the audience with a nod to the moment that actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars.

Osman, a 22-year-old in his third year at Wartburg College in Waverly, told The Gazette he’s performed at the bar about 20 times and done shows in Des Moines, Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Iowa City. Though the crowd was mostly young, he said it tends to skew older here than some of the other cities, but people accept his jokes nonetheless.

“This is the place,” Osman said. “This bar is the most special place,” offering an “amazing” owner and a venue unlike what he can find in Waverly.

It’s a scene indicative of the growth of Kingston Village in the years since floodwaters ravaged the city in 2008, as private investment and public plans to grow the area have spurred redevelopment.

Years ago, as Cedar Rapids tried and failed twice, in 2014 and 2017, to secure a license from state regulators to operate a casino, land earmarked for a gaming facility at First Avenue W and First Street SW was seen as the “elephant in the room” in discussions of Kingston Village’s growth prospects.

Initially, some thought that whatever went at that corner — whether it be a casino or another massive development — would fuel the growth of Kingston Village. But despite the highly visible corner sitting mostly vacant since the 2008 flood, the neighborhood’s growth took off on its own, as its proximity to the Cedar River, Interstate 380 and downtown attracted residents, businesses and developers to the area.

Construction of an $81.5 million mixed-use First and First West development soon will be underway with the investment of local developers under 1st and 1st LLC and the support of city incentives, transforming the empty city-owned space into a mix of housing, hotel rooms, public gathering space and restaurants, including a Big Grove brewery.

An $81.5 million development of long-vacant city-owned land near Cedar Rapids’ urban core will break ground soon, bringing a mix of restaurants, housing, hotel rooms, a Big Grove brewery and other uses in a signature project that provides a gateway from downtown to the west side of the Cedar River. (City of Cedar Rapids)

Given its high-profile location, the development, which is set to come online in phases through 2030, will provide an amenity that attracts current residents and draws visitors into town off I-380.

With continued private investment and plans for public projects in Kingston Village, First and First West will nearly double the level of investment the neighborhood has seen and is positioned to anchor the fast-growing part of Cedar Rapids.

With the uptick in business as COVID-19 cases subside and new development popping up in the neighborhood, Thew Brewing co-owner Haley Flenker said growth is occurring the way she and her husband anticipated when they opened their business in 2018.

“It’s a really exciting time to be in Kingston Village,” Flenker said. “With the anticipation of First and First, with the anticipation of people really being able to get out and about and all of the good things happening in the neighborhood, we couldn’t be happier to be in this spot.”

‘Everything we could ever dream of’

To begin efforts to aggressively redevelop the flood-damaged land, the City Council in June 2013 marked the neighborhood’s boundaries, ranging north to south from I-380/First Avenue W to Eighth Avenue SW; and east to west from the river to Sixth Street SW. The Kingston name honors the area’s history — a nod to the 400-person town of Kingston that made up about the first four westside blocks across the Cedar River until its annexation into Cedar Rapids in 1871.

Some of the area is in the 100-year flood plain where Cedar Rapids had purchased numerous properties with federal funds as part of the city’s flood recovery buyout program.

This move to set boundaries was part of obtaining an exception from the Iowa Economic Development Authority to redevelop vacant lots in the 100-year flood plain, which federal rules typically prohibit. The IEDA may permit targeted redevelopment in areas with historic standing or areas that are “viable business districts.”

Kingston historic preservation projects

• People’s Savings Bank (Popoli & Offices)

• Iowa Wind Mill and Pump Company Office and Warehouse (Mott Building)

• Evaporated and Condensed Milk Co. of Cedar Rapids (Knutson Building)

• Gatto Building

• A&P Tea Co building

• Rowell Hardware Building (Dash)

Since the neighborhood’s formal establishment, it has seen $93.1 million in private investment across 22 projects the city has financially supported with tax incentives, according to figures provided by the city. The total private investment is estimated to exceed $100 million with other projects not supported by the city.

Those figures don’t account for First and First West and all the upcoming public and private projects in the neighborhood, which will roughly double the existing investment.

Business owners say a mix of factors lured them to Kingston Village — both the amenities and the anticipation of the massive development taking shape at the First Avenue W and First Street SW site.

Plus, city plans to invest in public projects have been a draw for the neighborhood. Already, the city has converted Second and Third avenues SW to two-way streets, completed a street lighting project for Kingston Village and downtown and made riverfront improvements from Third Avenue SW to the 5-in-1 Dam.

Cedar Rapids also completed a flood control project for a $6.8 million flood wall at the McGrath Amphitheatre, with a $4 million bathroom and pump station building at the facility. Work on the $750 million flood control system has assured business owners their investments will be protected from rising waters.

“We saw the potential right away of what was going to happen around the neighborhood,” said Flenker, who chose the spot at 301 Second Ave. SW for her brewery in spring of 2017.

With Popoli Ristorante already in the neighborhood — plus LP Street Food, Dash Coffee Roasters and Quinton’s Bar and Deli preparing to open not long before Thew — Flenker said “it seemed like the perfect time to move into this neighborhood knowing that there was going to be so much growth around it.”

It’s not unusual to make a pit stop for coffee at Dash and see familiar faces. Whether it’s a friend, public official or a business leader, the coffee shop that’s part of the Third Avenue SW commercial historic district has become a popular community gathering spot since its November 2017 opening.

A Linn County casino license decision was nearing a vote with the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission when Dash was considering its location, owner Rebecca Weinbrenner said.

Whether a casino or another development took shape there, Weinbrenner said, “our view of it was always something was going to happen in these big four lots behind us. And no matter what it was, it was going to be something that Cedar Rapids had put a lot of thought into and was going to be a driver for downtown business.”

A 2017 Vision Downtown Cedar Rapids report encouraged the exploration of “outside-the-box ideas that could create a postcard opportunity for Cedar Rapids” with a casino unlikely to ever get the go-ahead. The plan is refreshed once in a while, detailing potential priorities the city can consider in future development.

Knowing there were plans to guide the neighborhood’s revitalization made Kingston Village seem to hold great promise, Weinbrenner said.

“We saw the opportunity to be a home for this growing area where we knew there was going be lots of housing and other small businesses in the area, and to be a hub where those people can meet and form relationships together,” Weinbrenner said. “It just sounded like everything we could ever dream of.”

Cornerstone project

New housing development over the years has supported business growth in Kingston Village. By the city’s count, there have been 423 new housing units — 300 at market rate and 123 affordable units, with a variety of rental and for-sale units.

Joe Ahmann, president and chief executive officer of Hiawatha-based Ahmann Companies, has been one of the developers behind several residential projects in the neighborhood. He also is part of the First and First West development team.

Kingston Village residential properties under the Ahmann Companies umbrella include the Village Lofts condos, Redstone town houses, 500 on First studio apartments and the 400 on Second and Sixth Street Commons one- and two-bedroom apartment complexes.

Ahmann has done other residential projects in Cedar Rapids, including some in the New Bohemia District. The people who were interested in Kingston have different priorities than those who want to live in NewBo, he said.

An $81.5 million development of long-vacant city-owned land near Cedar Rapids’ urban core will break ground soon, bringing a mix of restaurants, housing, hotel rooms, a Big Grove brewery and other uses in a signature project that provides a gateway from downtown to the west side of the Cedar River. (City of Cedar Rapids)

“What they like about Kingston is they feel like it’s its own area, and you’re close to all the activities — either walkable or very close to downtown, NewBo, (McGrath) Ampitheatre, but you’re not right in it,” Ahmann said. “You feel like you’re still in a neighborhood, but you’re in a neighborhood that has all the activity right next door.”

Nate Kaeding, business development director for Coralville-based Build to Suit and another one of the developers behind First and First West, had gone through a similar request-for-proposals process to use city land for his company’s 245 Kingston apartment complex on Second Avenue SW.

He said the restaurants and shops already there attracted his company to Kingston Village — they added a sense of neighborhood identity. With First and First West, Kaeding said the development team and city officials saw a “big opportunity” with creating some attractions and outside public plaza space that would support existing businesses.

“What we’re trying to provide is more spaces for more of those complementary uses and then help bolster the neighborhood even further,” Kaeding said. “It’s the last bit of infill that can happen in this really cool, historic neighborhood in Cedar Rapids.”

‘Cranes beget cranes’

City Economic Development Manager Caleb Mason said putting about 270 more housing units in the neighborhood will give a boost to existing retail and office establishments in the area.

“I think we have this project because of a lot of the interest, a lot of the development that has happened,” Mason said. “This is the capstone project for that area with the availability of land, but it complements and continues the momentum that’s already been occurring.”

As private investment has taken off, the city also has ramped up public projects to offer infrastructure that both supports and protects the neighborhood’s growth — offering street improvements, flood protection and recreational amenities that further entice new development.

Current and upcoming city projects near Kingston

• Levees, flood walls and a pump station for the flood control system

• Public parking ramp on First and First West (about $13 million)

• River recreation/whitewater bypass channel ($14 million)

• Elevated cable-stayed Eighth Avenue Bridge ($50 million)

• Festival grounds and mixed-use site at Eighth Avenue pump station ($24.5 million)

• First Avenue W resurfacing ($6.5 million)

• First Street NW/SW realignment

Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said “cranes beget cranes” — in other words, development will only generate more development.

“The hope is that (growth) will continue, and the city has an eye on making sure that we’re consistent in how Kingston Village looks too,” O’Donnell said. “It’s our hope that we can continue to build upon that success.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; [email protected]

City-owned land near the Intersection of First Avenue W and First Street SW is slated for development in Cedar Rapids’ Kingston Village neighborhood. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Thew Brewing co-owner Haley Flenker pours a beer before a comedy show Friday at Thew Brewing in Cedar Rapids’ Kingston Village neighborhood. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Comedian Logan Pratt performs Friday during a comedy show at Thew Brewing in Cedar Rapids’ Kingston Village neighborhood. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids’ Kingston Village sees growth while cornerstone First and First West site long sat empt

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