Cedar Rapids looks to keep downtown area clean
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Is downtown Cedar Rapids as filthy as ever?
Cleanliness can be a matter of perspective, which became clear during a recent dust-up between some City Council members and representatives from the downtown district — which the city government pays to provide numerous services including keeping downtown tidy.
“Cedar Rapids is as clean as it’s ever been,” Linda Mattes, an Alliant Energy executive and downtown commission chairwoman, told members of the City Council finance committee, noting she hadn’t received complaints about it.
Later she said that “I think on an overall perspective, downtown looks really good” but there is room for improvement.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that City Council members Ann Poe and Scott Olson, who serve on the finance committee, couldn’t disagree more.
“Frankly, I am embarrassed by the cleanliness of downtown,” said Olson, a downtown property and business owner who regularly walks the area. “We have to find a new path.”
Olson picks up trash on his walks and has grown so frustrated he documents litter with photographs to share with the district.
Poe similarly was fed up. She noted overflowing garbage cans on sidewalks before the popular Saturday morning Farmers Markets in the summer, “filthy” alleyways, broken glass that remained on the ground a week later despite being reported, and cigarette butts everywhere.
“I have been harping on this for the last two, maybe two and a half — three years,” Poe said. “I’m embarrassed. I walk downtown. I’m downtown for events with my family and my friends. You see the trash containers. It’s not acceptable.”
Poe chided the downtown district as too focused on putting up murals and not enough on “doing the basics.”
“You can’t be doing other things, if you’re not doing the basics,” she said. “I walk around downtown and our trash containers and cigarette butts and our alleyways are deplorable. And, we’ve had enough.”
The downtown district has a full-time staff of three people: director Jesse Thoeming, a downtown cleaning ambassador and a maintenance specialist, who are employed by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance but report to the downtown commission through a memorandum of understanding.
The downtown commission is made up of property owners from a 72-block self-supported municipal improvement district, or SSMID, established in 1986 in the core business district. The owners pay an extra tax levy of $2.75 per $1,000 in taxable property value for improvements and upkeep in the downtown.
The downtown district has an annual budget of $880,000, of which about $560,000 comes from the tax levy and $141,000 comes from a memorandum of understanding with the city for a lengthy list of services such as managing planters, coordinating installation of public art, removing snow, hanging banners and managing vegetation along the Fourth Street railway corridor.
Among cleaning responsibilities, the district is expected to address complaints of trash and debris on bridges and sidewalks within 24 hours, as well as maintain a consistent schedule of street sweeping and power-washing alleys.
Of the budget, $180,000 is spent on streetscaping, which includes cleaning duties. Other spending streams include $327,000 for salaries and support services provided by the Economic Alliance, including marketing and administration; $258,000 for initiative such as holiday lights, decorations, Farmers Market, Market After Dark, last year’s Summer Passport program and sidewalk pianos; and $55,000 for special projects such as a new mural on the Third Avenue SE parking ramp.
Olson and Poe threatened that if changes weren’t made, the city would pull its funding and find its own solution. Poe requested Thoeming’s job description.
Olson suggested expanding a downtown ambassadors program run through Willis Dady Homeless Services in which crews would walk through downtown and pick up trash.
Evan McGuire, cleaning ambassador for the downtown district, spends about 70 percent of his day on cleanup, such as collecting litter and disposing of items such metal rods and chairs discarded in odd places. He also is responsible for clearing snow around trash cans, and he built several of the yard games used during community events.
“In the winter, it is really the hardest time to keep things clean,” McGuire said, noting the street sweeper doesn’t work below 40 degrees.
Thoeming estimated the district provides 1,500 hours of cleaning per year. He said while committed to keeping downtown clean and being responsive to City Hall, he must also follow the direction of the downtown commission.
Its top three priorities are supporting start-ups and new entrepreneurs, riverfront development and amenities and existing businesses, he said.
A recent downtown district survey found cleanliness ranked as the No. 12 priority and as No. 18 when filtered by those who live or work downtown, he said.
“I understand and want to focus on the basics and we are going to come up with a corrective action plan to address cleaning concerns, but I also have a board I have to be responsible to,” he said.
Thoeming and Mattes said they hope to provide a plan to the city by the end of the month.
They plan to examine street sweeping and spraying schedules, timing for cleanup rounds and more modern garbage receptacles less susceptible to being picked through and with signals when full.
Upcoming initiatives include replacing metal tree grates, which are a magnet for cigarette butts and litter, with compacted mulch this spring, and a $100,000 alleyway study to consider possible upgrades and new approaches to a place where Dumpsters are stored and tainted by grease and grime from restaurant exhausts.
Council member Dale Todd, whose district includes the downtown, said while he doesn’t perceive downtown as especially dirty, increased crowds can bring more garbage. He also credited the downtown team as doing the best it can with the resources it has.
“Our downtown is changing,” Todd said. “It’s more alive. We have more homeless downtown. It’s active for longer hours. Sure I can find a cigarette butt probably anywhere, but at the end of the day our downtown is no different from any other downtown. It’s a constant struggle to keep up.”
Other stakeholders of the downtown had a mix of opinions.
Ashley Reineke-Spencer, 27, of Cedar Rapids, works downtown and said she feels the volume of trash has increased. She has seen hypodermic needles and thinks cleanup efforts could be strengthened. But she sees it as a typical urban issue and not one unique to Cedar Rapids.
“I wouldn’t say it is overwhelming, but I notice it because I am coming from a place where there is focus on keeping the area clean,” she said, referring to her old hometown in northwest Iowa.
Sam Anderson, 31, who is a student pastor at Veritas Church on Third Street SE, said he doesn’t perceive downtown as dirty, especially considering before the flood of 2008, which is also used as a benchmark to measure changes in the community.
“I don’t see that,” he said.
Tim Kindl, who owns Bricks Pub in downtown, Local Pour Street Food in Kingston Village and Moco Game Room in the College District, said the alleys downtown “need serious love.”
He laid some blame on transients who pick through garbage cans and trash bins and rip off the lid of cigarette receptacles for stubs.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Kindl said. “I’ve seen worse. ... I don’t think it is terrible, but there’s some things I would like to see improved.”