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UR Here: Open Spaces

These three bison have remained hidden for decades.

In the days when prairies stretched from river to river across the expanse of what we now call Iowa, bison disturbance was essential to the health of the ecosystem. As the herds thundered across the grasslands and created wallows—depressions in the ground in which the animals rolled to cover themselves in mud and dirt—like a plow, they brought buried soil to the surface, leading to greater plant species diversity and ecosystem health. Recently, construction work on Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall unearthed three long-forgotten bison, and from their re-appearance lots of conversation has sprouted about our community, its history and its future.

Construction fences went up around the Black Hawk Mini-Park area of the downtown Ped Mall several weeks ago, and the one-story Wells Fargo building came down. These initial stages of Moen Group’s 14-story tower, Park @201, have marked an eruption of some very interesting and pertinent issues about public space, public process and public art. The first issue—or complex of issues—erupted long before the fences went up, when Marc Moen, who owns the property, revealed his specific plans for the development of the space next to the Mini-Park. His vision for a tower in that spot is actually several years old—I recall seeing mention of it in the press on numerous occasions. But when the specific plans were announced, especially when the specific ambition of 14 stories came to be known, a number of community members objected on several counts.

Two issues were primary among the concerns. First, many simply objected to the size of the building in that space, as it will materially impact the nature of the Ped Mall, both in terms of the structure’s imposingness and the shadow it will cast. Second, many objected to Mr. Moen’s request for tax increment financing from the City of Iowa City for part of the project. I won’t express an opinion on these two issues since that’s not my purpose here and since they’re now moot points. The point I’d simply like to make here is perhaps obvious but, I think, worth repeating. The lines between public space and private property are very often fuzzy. I don’t mean that literal property lines are fuzzy. But the balance between a private property owner’s desire to build whatever he or she wants and the collective wishes of a public are not always congruent. And while there may be no legal requirements at play, a community conversation in such circumstances is almost always wise.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen to the extent many would have liked. A petition with 697 signatures in our community can put a reverse referendum on general obligation bonds—which the city had planned to use for the TIF—to a public vote. A group of Iowa Citians collected 862 signatures and presented the petition to the city. The City Council’s response was to change the type of bonds for the TIF to revenue bonds, which are not subject to public vote. I know and admire some who sit on our City Council, and I admire some whom I don’t know. Even so, we part ways on this decision. Regardless of whether or not councilors believed strongly in the project as good for the city, as several have stated, a significant public expression of concern and call for action does not deserve an end run by its elected representatives. It is true, as one or two councilors said, that the public elects its representatives to make such decisions. But that is not an absolute; the dialogue and consultation process does not simply end on Election Day. If there is enough public concern expressed, as I believe there was in this case, I say it is incumbent upon a representative body to facilitate those concerns and not quash them. Perhaps it may not have had to come to a public vote, but the petition deserved a more respectful response than rendering it irrelevant after the fact. A strong community builds pathways for public discussion and reconciliation; it does not use escape hatches to avoid public discussion it doesn’t wish to engage in.

Whether Black Hawk Mini-Park somehow falls victim to its new tall neighbor when completed or not, it has for the next year or so. In order to construct the new tower, the mini-park has disappeared from public use, blocked by construction fences and home to construction equipment. This constriction of public space has consequences—and, again, causes public space issues to rise to the surface. KCRG reported on Aug. 29 that city police were “cracking down” on illegal behavior in the Ped Mall, this in the wake of the Black Hawk closure. A number of citizens have claimed that this effort targets the poor and homeless who sit on the Ped Mall, often in and close to Black Hawk Mini-Park, and who are now displaced to closer proximity to others who object to them. The police say they are simply responding to increased behavioral complaints and are simply ticketing people who break the law.

As before, I’m not here to pass judgment on exactly what is happening by whom, to whom, and why. But this is definitely an object lesson in the importance of public space and the negative effects on community when you take it away (“temporarily” or not). More public space is healthier—for more people to congregate and interact, and for more different kinds of people to congregate and interact. Squeezing more people into a smaller public space can lead to more conflict and less community. At the same time, I think this situation also reveals how compartmentalized our Pedestrian Mall is and can be. When certain groups are displaced from “their” section—whether that segmentation is a result of choice, a sense of “ownership,” or exile—they “infiltrate” other’s areas, and those others don’t like it. “The big sort”—Bill Bishop’s idea, in his book of the same name, that Americans today self-select themselves into more and more like-minded enclaves—can happen on both micro and macro levels. Maybe it’s about time the various “factions” of Ped Mall denizens came into closer proximity to and more interaction with each other. I don’t hold out hope that it will be pretty, though, as apparently it has not been.

Art + Public Engagement: Donna Friedman and her art students finished the mural in 1976.

This situation may reveal a larger issue about public space. A recent article by Jay Walljasper on onthecommons.org is entitled “Poor People Need Public Spaces the Most.” Walljasper cites Enrique Peñalosa—former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia—who notes that “richer people enjoy the pleasures of big homes, backyards, private clubs and country houses. Poor people have only their local street to hang out in—and if they’re lucky, a park, library or playground nearby.” I leave you to ponder the implications of this important observation for our own community.

Finally, the bison. As the nondescript Wells Fargo building came down, the wall of an adjacent building was revealed. And on that wall was a long-forgotten mural panel of three bison, part of one of Iowa City’s great historical efforts in public art. This was a remnant of the large Chief Black Hawk mural entitled “Black Hawk’s Dream,” painted on the side of the Paul-Helen Building (now housing Iowa Artisans Gallery) in the 1970s, directed by UI Professor Donna Friedman and designed by Eric Christensen. The mural disappeared in the 1980s when a new entrance and new windows were installed on that side of the building. This “bison disturbance” has dredged up a lot of welcome interest in local history and public art.

The revelation has also revived some discussion about Black Hawk Mini-Park itself. News reports have revealed that the city still retains the option of selling that land to private developers. While it seems unlikely that would happen, we have seen incidences, even in the past year, of development happening in our community based on legal situations and ordinances that the public was unaware of. Perhaps more discussion should happen about making Black Hawk Mini-Park’s status as public space permanent.

A recent guest opinion by Jim Maynard in the Iowa City Press-Citizen has also called us to rethink the future of the mini-park in the wake its new-found attention. The building that stood on that site was demolished in the late 1960s in preparation for Iowa City’s urban renewal. For several years, it remained an empty demolition lot. Jim Maynard is a former co-chairman of Project GREEN, and his essay reminds us that Black Hawk Mini-Park (which he designed and whose construction he supervised—and which, by the way, followed the painting of the Black Hawk mural) was initiated by Project GREEN in order to, as he says, “provide a [refuge] from the chaos and foreshadow the environment and amenities that could be created downtown if the council would grant them the use of the [site].” The mini-park, as well as a second park built at the southwest corner of Dubuque and College Streets (where the Sheraton now sits), were precursors to and inspiration for the subsequent construction of the Ped Mall.

If you look at pictures of the mini-park in its early days, it actually looks like a park with much more in the way of trees and landscaping than exist today. As the redesign of the Paul-Helen building led to the demise of the mural, so did it alter the mini-park. Jim Maynard tells us how his redesign proposal called for a small stage and an outdoor café atmosphere, which never came to pass. Maynard says, “In my opinion, the new design that was implemented was and is totally lacking in the appeal, attraction, ambiance and intimacy of the original design.” I agree that the current state of Black Hawk Mini-Park, while valuable as public space, barely captures the spirit of an urban park and has much more potential for a more vibrant public space. Maynard calls us to take the opportunity of this significant public space’s new attention to rethink Black Hawk Mini-Park: “Once the Moen Tower is done, the area should be redesigned and restored to a more inviting concept.” I’d be on board with that.

Like the tens of millions of bison of old, the three painted exemplars of the prairie’s keystone species will disappear from our sight once again in the months to come. They have provided us with a tremendous community service, however, by giving us some historic and current artistic pleasure and by plowing up some issues regarding our precious public spaces that need more—and ongoing—community discussion.

When his son was in grade school, Thomas Dean was reminded often that it’s “bison,” not “buffalo.”

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