Eight Years Later: EPA Assists Iowa City’s Sustainable Recovery After Historic 2008 Flood

By David Doyle

In June 2008, parts of eastern Iowa were devastated by a 500-year flood, the second such event in 15 years. Total losses from the flooding were estimated at nearly $3.5 billion.

Flooding in eastern Iowa, June 2008

The disaster’s greatest impact was on Cedar Rapids, where more than 5,200 homes and almost 1,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed. However, the flood also affected dozens of other communities along the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa, and Mississippi rivers and their many tributaries.

My Role in Tornado Recovery

The previous year, I had been assigned to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) long-term community recovery efforts in response to the EF-5 tornado that devastated Greensburg, Kan. This was my first opportunity to participate in a long-term recovery effort in response to a natural disaster.

Aftermath of Iowa flooding, June 2008

EPA’s traditional role after disasters primarily had been responding to the threat and impacts from the release of hazardous materials, along with addressing the impacts on community water and wastewater systems. Long-term recovery was a relatively new role for EPA and involved providing assistance with sustainable community planning to make a community more sustainable and resilient to future disasters.

My role in Greensburg was to help FEMA develop the long-term community recovery plan which was completed after several months of work and quickly implemented, eventually making Greensburg arguably the greenest city in the country.

In 2008, I was again assigned to work with FEMA in Iowa on post-disaster, sustainable long-term planning efforts. I quickly realized that making such plans after a flood was very different than for a tornado.

A Very Different Experience

While Greensburg was a one-square-mile city, much of Iowa was impacted in one way or another by this flood. Fortunately, then Governor Chet Culver established a state government agency called the Rebuild Iowa Office, which spent considerable time immediately after the disaster working with FEMA to determine the long-term recovery needs of communities.

Flooding in eastern Iowa, June 2008

Meanwhile, learning from my experience in Greensburg, I started to reach out to various EPA headquarters offices looking for assistance, knowing there was no funding available from EPA Region 7 to assist with the needed recovery planning.

I quickly found that EPA’s offices of Sustainable Communities and Brownfields & Land Revitalization were willing partners. Both provided funding to bring in technical experts on economic development, transportation planning, and sustainable urban design.

Iowa City Makes the Most of EPA’s Assistance

The Iowa community that took most advantage of these resources was Iowa City, the state’s fourth largest city and home to the University of Iowa and a major medical center. For years, the city had been looking to redevelop an area south of their downtown. The 2008 flood gave them an opportunity to do just that.

This 30-square-block area, renamed the Riverfront Crossings District, includes an aging wastewater treatment plant, recycling center, animal shelter, and various other underutilized properties, many of which were impacted by the flooding.

Diagram from EPA’s “Enhancing Sustainable Communities with Green Infrastructure”

After conducting a retail and housing market analysis, along with a transit-oriented development study, both commissioned by EPA, it was decided that this area could be transformed into a mixed-use, pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighborhood. Again, utilizing EPA funding, contractors with expertise in sustainable urban planning initiated a process to develop conceptual plans for such a neighborhood. After considerable interaction with local stakeholders, EPA finalized these plans in May 2011.

Since EPA’s Involvement

As it takes years – not only for plans to be finalized from conception, but also for them to be implemented – I recently asked Karen Howard, Iowa City’s assistant planning director, to update me on what has happened in the community since EPA’s involvement.

She said a Riverfront Crossings District Master Plan was adopted in 2013, along with a form-based zoning code for the district in 2014 (one of the recommendations from the initial EPA technical assistance grant).

Illustration of Riverfront Crossings District restoration after removal of wastewater plant

Since the form-based code was adopted, private investment in new construction totaled about $160 million, with many projects still under construction, and another $100 to $150 million in private investment is in the planning stages. This is only a small fraction of the redevelopment potential of the Riverfront Crossings District that Howard expects in the coming years.

New private building projects include two new hotels, a 6-story Class A office building, stand-alone restaurant, convenience store/gas station, craft brewery, multi-family and mixed-use buildings with ground floor retail space, and a considerable number of residential apartments and condominiums.

Public investment in the district includes the decommissioned and demolished, flood-prone wastewater treatment plant; the first phase of a new riverfront park, a 600-space public parking facility (under construction), new ambulance and medical examiners’ offices (under construction), and a new University of Iowa School of Music (completed in fall 2016). A number of street improvement projects are also in the planning stages.

The old saying, “With disaster brings opportunity,” certainly couldn’t be more applicable to the sustainable recovery efforts that rejuvenated Iowa City after the flood of 2008.

About the Author: David Doyle serves as the Sustainable Communities Coordinator at EPA Region 7. David has a Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering from Syracuse University, and a Master of Science in environmental health engineering from the University of Kansas.

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