Designing a Revitalized Community

April 23, 2019

A community isn’t magically revitalized by spiffing up a building or two. Creative vision, thoughtful planning, and revived key places and structures can impress and energize locals and visitors alike, enhancing pride of place and making further changes seem not just possible, but desirable.

RDG professionals have seen this happen by working with entities in Grinnell, Iowa on multiple, incremental projects over several years. Grinnell citizens and visitors are seeing the difference.

Grinnell experienced a building boom in the late 19th century, resulting in a solid stock of commercial buildings downtown, including the complex of historic buildings built for the Spaulding Manufacturing Company during that era. On the southeast edge of downtown, the 3.8-acre Central Park was gifted to the City by J.B. Grinnell in the late 1800s. The park has provided generations of citizens with a civic venue for festivals, concerts, community events, and family gatherings.

Over more than 100 years, though, the park and other Grinnell locales had lost some luster. Community leaders saw that parts of their city core needed to be brushed up, re-created, and revitalized. So – over the past 10+ years, with one project after another – a new vibrancy and dynamism is coming to the community.

The variety of efforts have drawn on all the diverse specialties that can be found at RDG Planning & Design: architects, urban planners, historic preservationists, landscape architects, artists, engineers, interior designers, and multimedia designers. We’re not just hired by the same company; we all actually talk to each other, learn from one another, and jump on opportunities to collaborate. So we’ve been able to help ensure that a succession of separate projects occurring over multiple years end up having a cohesiveness that matters to the community.

For Instance: Façade Rehabilitation

While most of the downtown commercial buildings had been well maintained, several were a bit rough around the edges after many years of changing ownership and natural deterioration. Rehabilitating properties takes money, and the community needs additional investment to fulfill its true potential. With the help of a Community Development Block Grant, enthusiastic owners signed on to have RDG repair and restore the facades of 13 different storefronts, all two-story and all historic. Slum and blight conditions were removed, missing historic elements were recreated, masonry was repaired and restored, windows were replaced or rehabilitated, and more.

Rehabilitated Storefronts, Grinnell, Iowa

As a result, occupancy rates were maintained (a victory in rural communities), and the façade restoration project created enthusiasm for filling those buildings that were underutilized or empty. The extensive storefront reconstruction and masonry restoration work rescued one building from Preservation Iowa’s© 2016 Most Endangered Properties list. Another building was transformed into “the Stew” (Stew Arts Studio), sponsored by the Grinnell Area Arts Council, which houses the “MLab,” a collaborative maker space and fabrication lab in Grinnell. The rehabilitated buildings will contribute to Grinnell’s newly vibrant downtown for generations to come.

For Instance: City Hall Offices – Spaulding Building

In 2012, RDG had restored and renovated the main Spaulding Manufacturing Company building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to house the Iowa Transportation Museum. Soon after, however, the museum was forced to close due to a change in Federal Tax credit funding. It was a happy coincidence that just at that time the City of Grinnell needed a new City Hall location. Once again, RDG professionals went to work on giving this historic building yet another new life, serving the citizens of Grinnell.

Because RDG already knew the building and the City well, we were able to apply a new level of creative vision and thoughtful, collaborative planning to relocate City offices and repurpose the Spaulding building.

RDG’s interior renovation integrates state-of-the-art offices, workstations and technology into the former museum spaces, and provides a new spacious City Council Chamber. The original high ceilings are accented by the newly renovated tin ceiling; partial-height office walls allow an uninterrupted view of this feature. The City not only continued to actively engage one of its most impressive historic buildings in the life of the community, it gained a new point of pride which citizens interact with daily.

For Instance: Central Park

Since a vital community requires prominent, beautiful spaces for gathering and relaxation, a high priority for Grinnell was a rejuvenated Central Park, the City’s oldest and most historic park. RDG professionals worked with the City on a master plan to completely renovate Central Park, adding unique, quality-of-life amenities for the entire community.

A City-appointed advisory committee and significant community engagement informed the final thoughtful, comprehensive master plan. RDG created detailed designs and constructed park improvements that capitalize on Grinnell’s rich cultural history and reinforce the spirit and emotion the Park has come to embody.

The renovated Park’s amenities have provided a meaningful community platform for gatherings, concerts, events and festivals not previously available to citizens. From the prairie style architectural character of the vertical structures (consistent with architectural styles throughout the community) to the authentic materials (including clay, stone, timber, brick and custom fabricated terra cotta) to the compelling lighting systems that bring the Park to life during night time hours, Central Park now creates places and spaces for diverse, multigenerational activities and functions.

Creative Vision, Thoughtful Planning, Incremental Efforts

Revitalization of a small city doesn’t happen with just one project – it takes creative vision, intentional planning, lots of citizen involvement, incremental efforts – and collaborative partners who can share the vision and know how to guide the City through the challenges along the way. RDG has been pleased to be such a partner for Grinnell, on key projects that have been changing the face of this Iowa town. A partial list of RDG projects in Grinnell:

  • Iowa Transportation Museum

  • Lions Park

  • Sapphire Park

  • Central Park Master Planning, Improvements, and Artwork

  • Sullivan Bank Winged Lion Restoration

  • Grinnell College Sports Venues, Parish Hall, Outdoor Commencement Venue

  • Veterans Memorial Building Study & Renovation

  • Streetscape Planning

  • Strategy and Visioning

  • Downtown Facades Rehabilitation

  • City Hall Relocation

  • Masonic Temple Building

Written by Scotney Fenton, Architect; Bruce Niedermyer, Landscape Architect