The Cedar Rapids City Council will consider a plan that would demolish the former Buchanan School, 2000 Mount Vernon Rd. SE, and replace it with a four-story apartment building. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Neighbors are concerned about a proposed four-story apartment complex looming over their homes and the demolition of a century-old school in southeast Cedar Rapids.

The Cedar Rapids City Council will hear a proposal at its meeting at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, 2024, regarding a plan to demolish the former Buchanan School, 2000 Mount Vernon Rd. SE, and replace it with a 52-unit apartment building.

A public hearing is not scheduled on the resolution, but residents can speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, held on the third floor of City Hall, 101 First St. SE.

“It’s well worth saving,” developer Jim Hobart of Hobart Historic Restoration said of the solid brick structure, constructed in 1919-1920 to replace a wood-frame school on the site as a long-term commitment to the growing neighborhood.

The company is no stranger to historic preservation, having transformed the 1880s Knutson Building along the riverfront in downtown Cedar Rapids into chic loft housing after the city recommended the building be demolished.

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Hobart Historic Restoration transformed the Knutson Building into The Chelsea, featuring loft housing. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

That success story is one of a number that Hobart Historic has achieved, he said, with hopes to save another historic building with the Buchanan School project.

The school had been repurposed by the city as the Ambroz Recreation Center, but was left vacant after a new recreation center was constructed next to Harrison Elementary School in northwest Cedar Rapids.

Hobart submitted a $12 million proposal to repurpose the school with 15 housing units and add 1- and 2-story townhomes, for a total of 29 units on the site. His proposal involved the use of state and federal historic tax credits, which can cover 45 percent of costs, along with workforce housing tax credits, Community Development Block Grants and the company’s own funds.

While the development was not strictly for seniors, “it’s geared to seniors who want to stay in the neighborhood,” he said, citing the single-story townhouses. While the school consisted of multiple levels, an elevator could have accommodated accessibility issues, he added.

Hobart said the city had questions about the financing, but before the company had a chance to answer them, was left a message saying the other proposal had been selected to move onto council consideration.

A rendering shows townhomes next to the repurposed school building under the Hobart Historic Restoration plan.

Adam Lindenlaub, the city’s Community Development Assistant Director, said a review committee met April 9, and on April 12, “we notified the other developer the committee would not be recommending their proposal to City Council.”

“At no point were they asked to ‘answer questions’ by April 19th,” Lindenlaub said in an email. “The Review Committee made their recommendation based on the information provided in the proposal.”

Residents of the Vernon Heights neighborhood, where the building is located, cited concerns ranging from parking located at the front of the building, to the demolition of the school and the scale of the proposed four-story apartment complex, which would overwhelm the Craftsman bungalows and other single-family homes surrounding the site.

“Building is too modern and doesn’t fit the neighborhood,” one resident wrote on Facebook, while another commented that the proposed apartment “Looks like every other dumb building they build these days. Not impressed.”

A rendering of the four-story apartment building proposed by Aspect, Inc.

Jennifer Trembath, who lives next to the proposed site of the building, questioned whether the historic nature of the neighborhood was taken into account, among other points.

“I’m not a fan of the modern design. It does not fit the aesthetic of the neighborhood,” she said. “Almost every house is 100 years old. I’m truly unhappy with everything in this design. It looks exactly like all the other giant apartment complexes being built.”

Lindenlaub said saving the building was listed as a development objective in the request for proposal: “Preference for retaining unique sense of place through renovation and/or new construction.”

The RFP also included an adaptive reuse plan, which provided an example of how the building could be renovated, he noted, and the evaluation section included “Quality of architecture and/or historic preservation and conformance with adopted City Plans” among its criteria.

Steve Emerson, president of architecture and design firm Aspect Inc., who submitted the $17.5 million proposal under consideration by the City Council, said he is using a design that had been proposed for northwest Cedar Rapids that had complications with the site, along with $4.5 million in a forgivable loan from the state for replacement housing related to Iowa’s 2020 hurricane-strength derecho.

The Cedar Rapids Ambroz Recreation Center was located in the former Buchanan School. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

Emerson’s firm has been behind 16 historic restoration projects, including some in Cedar Rapids, and has been trying to revive the former Dubuque Brewing and Malting Co. building, which has encountered difficulties, a portion of which is now required to be demolished.

He noted he was on teams involved in previous proposals for the Buchanan/Ambroz site, but determined the school, while in solid structural shape, wasn’t conducive for redevelopment because of its layout and nine different levels, making accessibility an issue.

In reusing the design from the northwest Cedar Rapids project, Emerson said, “we wanted to find a site that made more sense and this one did.”

Emerson has not yet talked to neighbors about their concerns, he said, which would be one of the next steps in the process.

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Craftsman bungalows are among the single-family homes located next to the proposed redevelopment site. (photo/Cindy Hadish)