More on Westdale

I’ve had a few calls and some e-mail about my column this morning on Westdale Mall and future decisions on where government will set up shop in this town, post-flood. Every reader who has contacted me likes the current Westdale set up, allowing them to conduct county business in one convenient place. They hope it’s a permanent deal.

As I said this morning, if you like it, you’d better speak up, because local leaders who will be making the final call don’t see a future at Westdale.

County Supervisor Linda Langston, who was at The Gazette today for an editorial board session, said Westdale simply won’t work long-term. She does not support government ownership of the mall, arguing that the county/city shouldn’t be in retail leasing, mall upkeep business. She talked about having to plow big parking lots and fix roof leaks etc.

“I don’t think our obligation is to rescue the mall,” Langston said.

Instead, she said deliberations are in their “infancy” on whether a brand new building should be built to house county, city and school district offices, and perhaps the chamber, Convention and Visitors Bureau and some arts and cultural functions. She rejected my use of the term “government cathedral,” saying instead “we just need a building that works well.”

The biggest question about a new building, she said, is how much federal recovery bucks can be tapped to build it. Discussions are preliminary. Explorations will be thorough. The public will be involved.

“It’s going to be an entertaining couple of years,” she said.

Personally, what I’d like to see is a good, solid, independent analysis on why Westdale won’t work. I think they owe that to all the people who enjoy the current set up. I’m not saying the assessments of Langston and others are wrong, I’d just like to see it in black and white. And it will come in handy when they try to sell people on a new building.

As for a new building, I’d love to see a plan. Until then, I’m neutral/skeptical.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “More on Westdale

  1. Jason

    As much as I enjoy practicality, a bright, shiny, new “government cathedral” downtown kind of excited me. The mall may be convenient for citizens, but it’s a tacky way to do government.

  2. Brent Oleson

    So its not are job to rescue the Westdale Mall but it is our job as County Supervisors to rescue the Linn County History Center? Interesting. (fyi, the Linn County Supervisors just voted to appropriate county money at the tune of $70,000.00 without so much as a peep of debate to subsidize the History Center downtown). Sounds like a rescue package to me, or a bailout package, whatever slant you like.

  3. MV

    A new building downtown might really help revive that important area and give the local government an important symbolic win. But the repurposing of the mall has a certain appeal too. I agree with Dorman; independent analysis is in order here.

  4. JoeBob

    Several ideas come to mind.

    Anyone remember the whole “moritorium” thing the city pulled with Westdale not too long back?

    Downtown will look like Egypt & Turkey. I mean, the only way to avoid leaky roofs is to not have them. (For tax purposes, I was told, the top floors are left open because incomplete buildings are taxed differently than finished buildings, i.e. those with roofs.)

    Isn’t plowing Westdale’s lot the responsibility of Westdale’s management? (OK, so I’m thinking the government would continue leasing rather than buying.)

    At the current rate, I doubt there’ll be much more retail to lease to — it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the tenants pull out.

  5. Yesterday, I talked to Supervisor Langston and we discussed Westdale Mall. I shared some of these thoughts with her:

    1> Lease space in Westdale Mall for the next 4-5 years. By the end of the lease, whatever is going to happen with the residential and commercial landscape Downtown and near the river should be settled. Then and only then should the County consider acquiring land in the Downtown area. If the County acquires land before that period of time, we may take land off the market that could be utilized for better purposes by a tax paying entity.
    2> Follow the example set by the Federal government’s use of Shepherd Mall (I wrongly told her Penn Square Mall) in Oklahoma City after the Federal Courthouse bombing. After the new Courthouse was built, most of the Feds moved out of the Mall, but the Mall survived because it had been revitalized by the Feds moving into it and paying rent for a period of time.
    3> If you want to test out the co-location concept with the City and/or Cedar Rapids Schools, why not try it in Westdale before you think about constructing a building? What if you build a big building and find out the County, City, and/or Schools cannot get along? And while putting everybody in the same building does make it easier for the citizens to access services, e.g., county assessor and city assessor, the real savings to the taxpayer will only be realized if the various bodies come to an agreement to consolidate the overhead functions of government, e.g., IT, human resources, finance, budget, accounts payable, payroll, facilities, and other functions. Four Oaks of Iowa has already proven that one administrative group can fulfill the overhead functions for multiple organizations with separate missions. The difference is: one CEO is in charge of the overhead functions. Are the electeds / administrators in the City, County, and School willing to give up control for the common good? The recent frustration over the joint communications fiber network going back into service was not a good sign of teamwork.

    These are the ideas I did not share with Supervisor Langston:

    4> Relocate other administrative and services offices to the Mall. Prior to the flood, we had 13 major buildings for 800+ employees scattered around Cedar Rapids. Why not consolidate as many offices as possible into Westdale Mall, e.g., Public Health and Fillmore? And bring DHS over from the Iowa Building since we’re paying the rent for them to be in that space.
    5> Sell the Witwer Building. The Downtown District wants more downtown housing and at least one downtown business has expressed interest in buying it.
    6> Sell the Administrative Office Building. It’s time has come and gone and the last thing we should do is put the County Recorder and her priceless books back into a space that has been flooded three times in her memory. Penford has almost encircled the building, which unfortunately means they can probably name their own price if they want it. Who else would want the building except for a supplier/vendor of Penford’s?

    I agree with Supervisor Langston on government ownership of the Mall, but we should look at the numbers before making a decision. To my knowledge, no one has looked at the numbers. And if they have, they have not discussed them in public.

    As for plowing big parking lots and fixing roof leaks, see above comment regarding 13 buildings. And guess what, those 13 buildings all have parking lots and sidewalks which must be plowed by contractors/employees in the winter. And in the summer, the HVAC units must be maintained. The Witwer Building alone has a dozen HVAC units on the roof.

    I agree that the County has no obligation to rescue the Mall. I don’t call paying market rate rent a rescue. Our obligation to Westdale Mall should be no greater or lesser than the obligation we have to the flood impacted homes and businesses. The Mall is not asking for a handout. In fact, the Mall gave us a handout by contributing space to the County from June through October 31st.

    Obviously, Supervisor Langston feels the County has some obligation to flood impacted residents and businesses because the Board of Supervisors redirected funds from the Witwer Trust Fund to aid in flood relief. In addition, each member of the Board is a member of one of the Rebuild Iowa sub-committees and Supervisor Langston is a newly appointed member of the ERPC (economic recovery committee). Also of note, the County is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and provides financial support to Priority One, the economic development arm of the Chamber. The Board appears to be deeply interested and involved in the economic future of our community. Is Westdale a part of the problem or the solution? A part of the past or a part of the future?

    I don’t have all of the answers, but I do have some ideas. And to date, the subject of the County’s long term future versus Westdale’s future has not been discussed in a public Board of Supervisor’s meeting. When I read quotes like the one above, I feel like decisions have already been made outside the public’s view. And that’s not how we’re supposed to be conducting the public’s business. That’s not how I conduct business.

    Joel Miller
    Linn County Auditor

  6. Tom Potts

    I would say that we would not be rescuing Westdale Mall. The Mall has been a blessing for the City. It is our good fortune that they had space for all of the city departments. I know people don’t like to hear what other cities have done, but, I know of a mall that was bought by the city government and became a very effective hub of government. I don’t think we need another Cathedral in CR.

  7. Pingback: Thoughts on Westdale Mall and other county buildings « Views from the Linn County Auditor

  8. Pingback: Thoughts on Westdale Mall and other county buildings « Re-Elect Joel Miller for Auditor

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