WATERLOO — Noel Anderson recalls a 2008 meeting with Iowa Department of Transportation leaders to talk about U.S. Highway 63.
The state had agreed to rebuild the highway from downtown through Waterloo’s east side and had a message for the city’s newly appointed director of community planning and development.
“Their message was crystal clear,” Anderson said. “They said: Look, we’re giving you the money to do the road. Now you’ve got to make it look nice and get homes and businesses to come here.
“They told us we need to hold up our end of the deal and redevelop the corridor,” he added. “It was about improving the whole corridor, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
More than $60 million has been spent since construction started in 2013 to rebuild the highway from Jefferson Street downtown to Donald Street near UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital. The final phase, which includes a skyline-changing bridge to replace the Canadian National Railway underpass, is slated to wrap up in the fall.
But the city has focused outside the curbs.
Homes with front porches just feet from the highway were torn down or relocated, creating room for new decorative lights, trails and green space. Community Development and others focused on fixing up homes that remained.
The city reconfigured its tax-increment financing districts to help incent commercial projects along route, including Grand Crossing downtown, a new CVS Pharmacy and planned grocery store near Franklin Street, and a complete overhaul of the former Logan Plaza strip mall into new medical offices and retail space.
John Rooff was the city’s mayor in 2001 when a deal was reached with IDOT to begin studying the U.S. 63 project.
“We really needed that,” Rooff recalled. “That was such a narrow corridor, and those people living there were having problems. We couldn’t get the old Logan Plaza people to work with us, so we turned to (UnityPoint Health) and Allen College to do the Hy-Vee store.
“I look at it now and think it definitely will be good for the city when they’re done,” he added. “It’s amazing how it’s improved in looks already.”
Construction crews finished work on the downtown portion of the highway project, which utilizes First Street and Mullan Avenue, in 2018 just as two projects along the highway also opened for business.
The second phase of Grand Crossing, which is a 36-unit residential building with ground floor commercial space, wrapped up at Jefferson and Mullan. Hawkeye Community College also opened the Van G. Miller Adult Learning Center, at 120 Jefferson St.
Those projects replaced what had been the troubled Grand Hotel and a muddy lot that once housed the Waterloo Bowl-In.
Grant Crossing developer Brent Dahlstrom said all of the housing units are leased already while Jimmy John’s and Sidecar Coffee have taken two of the storefronts.
“So much has happened in downtown Waterloo since we started, with the new (Courtyard by Marriott) hotel, SingleSpeed and Hawkeye Community College,” Dahlstrom said. “We always hoped all of those items would happen, but it is great to be a small part of all the great activity going on downtown.”
The city is currently planning additional improvements improve access and beautify the highway downtown.
“The new Highway 63 design has made pedestrian safety improvements that allowed for connections and accessibility from John Deere Waterloo Works and the TechWorks campus to downtown businesses, residential and entertainment,” said Marta Purdy, of Vandewalle and Associates, a downtown planning consultant.
Across the Cedar River at Franklin Street, a new CVS Pharmacy was built in 2013 to replace the former Immanuel Lutheran Church and School. The city is working with developer Rodney Anderson to build a new All-In Grocers store and restaurant next to the pharmacy.
Rodney Anderson said he expects construction on the grocery to begin in April.
“I cannot wait to get that up and going,” he said. “It’s going to be a beacon of light in the community.”
Farther north, Dr. Thomas Gorsche is planning to construct a new $1.5 million orthopedic clinic at the former Logan Middle School site at Highway 63 and Louise Street. The school was demolished after being replaced by George Washington Carver Academy.
Developer Ben Stroh’s redevelopment of the former Logan Plaza into North Crossing is also continuing to move ahead. UnityPoint Health has invested in new medical offices there, a Kwik Star convenience store opened, and additional space is being readied for tenants.
Dr. Kalyana Sundaram has also continued to invest on land just east of North Crossing, completing a $1.1 million expansion of his clinic at 419 E. Donald St. last year.
Neighborhoods along the U.S. 63 project were heavily involved in the planning process before construction began. But the Walnut Neighborhood Association abutting the highway just north of downtown is becoming a model for redevelopment.
“I do believe that the Walnut Neighborhood has been taking steps over the past five years to strengthen and move together toward a flourishing neighborhood,” said the association’s president Laura Hoy.
After identifying housing conditions and vacant lots as its greatest challenge, a coalition was formed to address the issue, which included the neighborhood, Link Christian Community Development, Habitat for Humanity, JSA Development and the city.
Many Walnut area homes are being restored, and the coalition also is working on tree planting and other beautification efforts.
“So much of holistic neighborhood development is about building momentum through listening to and engaging neighbors, building on assets that exist and creating a strong network of communication and collaboration,” Hoy added. “We see a lot of positive movement in this regard in the Walnut Neighborhood.”
Despite the success stories, Anderson said there’s still work to be done to revitalize the highway corridor.
“We’re doing all these things to make the area look attractive and redo all of these sites,” he said. “Momentum’s a good thing to have and it’s good to see a lot of people interested in this area.”