Roy D. Buol
From the banks of either of these two neighboring states, the view of Dubuque is largely the same: You see the National Historic Landmark Julien Dubuque Bridge and the Carnegie Railroad Bridge spanning the Mighty Miss, the glimmering gold details of an iconic county courthouse, and a large cluster of equally iconic mid-level industrial buildings and warehouses that emerged as a result of Dubuque's role as a leader in the millworking industry.
Dating back to the pre-war 1900s, this 28-building, 17-block snapshot into the Midwest's industrial heyday features metal awnings, distinctive entry archways, decorative pediments, and red brick-paved streets with a functioning rail spur line coursing through them. Not too long ago, however, the signs of an economy that had changed radically since the mid-twentieth century abounded here. There were high vacancies, incompatible uses, functional obsolescence, and crumbling infrastructure. One telling statistic: In January 1983, Dubuque had a 23 percent unemployment rate.
Fortunately, those reminders are rapidly becoming part of the city's history under the leadership of Mayor Buol and the Dubuque City Council. In an effort to position their city as a global example of livability, a 2024 vision statement was established to formalize goals for economic prosperity, culture and heritage, quality of life, and healthy living. Sustainability is recognized as a cornerstone for each and, as noted in the plan's first set of five year goals, the Warehouse District is ground zero for the community's vision. The mayor and his city council also broke new ground by creating an office of sustainability and hiring a sustainability coordinator, a bold, strategic, and unique move.
In a step that has garnered national attention and several major awards, the city is developing the Dubuque Warehouse District Energy Efficiency Zone, which will make technical assistance available for the greening of the once-blighted downtown industrial complex and its over one million square feet of underutilized and inefficient space.
At the heart of this vision is a model that balances economic prosperity and sociocultural vibrancy with environmental integrity. Accordingly, the stock of warehouses is being assessed building-by-building for an endless array of affordable housing and mixed-use opportunities. Options for greening the buildings are being weighed, while district-wide environmentally friendly upgrades are also being considered, such as roof gardens, on-site renewable energy, energy efficient heating and cooling systems, and sustainable public improvements that are sensitive in design to the historic fabric of the district. Recognizing that the Warehouse District stands to create substantial job growth in the region, the city also plans to invest aggressively in green job training, especially among underprivileged youth.
The Warehouse District project and the city's pledge to include sustainability as an indispensible component of long-term planning suggests what so many cities across the country are realizing: Going green is a good way to put communities in the black.
But communities like Dubuque can't go it alone, and the success of projects like the Warehouse District Energy Efficient Zone depends heavily on federal transportation policies that promote reinvestment in existing communities. These projects would also benefit from federal incentives and assistance to encourage cities to make their existing building stock more energy efficient. An increase in the federal historic tax credits would leverage increased investment in historic structures across the country. Federal dollars for job training – to put Americans to work greening existing buildings and reinvesting in our existing communities – are also vital.