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Your Town Now: The city council’s Chauncey decision is remarkably opaque

Your Town Now

The City Council requested a decision-making matrix, then, according to one member of the Council, opted not to use it.

The Iowa City Council’s 5-1 decision last month to move ahead with Marc Moen’s Chauncey building project settled the question of what is to become of the corner of Gilbert and College, but the decision also led some local dissenters to look upon the council with an eye of suspicion.

One such group with the patently ridiculous film-noir name of “The Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow” (in part for the massive shadow to be cast by The Chauncey) has already emerged in response to the city’s remarkably opaque decision.

Last summer, the City Council issued a request for proposals for development projects to be built at the sparsely populated corner of College Street and Gilbert Street. By January, the candidates had been narrowed to three—The Chauncey, a 20-story mixed-use skyscraper to include high-end apartments, a boutique hotel, a bowling alley and two FilmScene movie theaters; Chauncey Gardens, an 18-story multi-use building that featured a new location for the New Pioneer Co-op, a large outdoor park, and additional retail, office and residential space; and 4Zero4, an 8-story building that would have housed the New Pioneer Co-op and the Bike Library.

To decide between the three alternatives, the council planned to develop a “decision matrix.” The preliminary matrix included five criteria to be considered, weighed by relative importance and scored for each proposal.

The breakdown of the proposed matrix—which can be found on the City Council website under the Jan. 8, 2013 work session—is as follows:

• Financial considerations including Tax Increment Financing (TIF) support and potential changes to tax revenues in the future (30%)
• Each plan’s proposed mix of uses within the building (25%)
• Design elements incorporated into each alternative, including “evidence of sustainable design” (20%)
• The mass and scale of the proposed building (15%)
• Each developer’s statement summarizing its experience, passion and vision (10%)

When the council was ready to make its final decision, however, one council member alleges that his fellow councilors chose not to use the decision matrix and to move ahead without it:

“As for why my colleagues on the Council chose not to use the proposed decision matrix, I think they could explain their own rationale better than I can,” Councilman Jim Throgmorton said. “I think it is fair to say, however, that they felt they already knew which project they preferred, and that it would be best to simply have each of us state our rank orderings.”

The five city councilors who preferred The Chauncey plan (Throgmorton opposed, Michelle Payne recused herself due to a potential conflict of interest) were able to approve that project with little debate and without presenting a concrete rationale or side-by-side comparison.

Even some who were heavily involved with the process were left scratching their heads about how the decision was made.

“The City Council’s decision making process remains puzzling,” Matt Hartz, general manager of New Pioneer Food Co-op said via email, “particularly regarding financial modeling on TIF and due diligence on the economic viability of proposed commercial uses.”

“I would have liked to see the council focus a bit more on the financial aspects of the proposals and the capacity of the various developers to complete their projects with minimal taxpayer subsidy and to return the value to the taxpayers within a 20-year time frame.”

This abject lack of transparency in the council’s decision-making process has rightly angered opponents of The Chauncey, who feel that the city did not properly consider public concerns about the project or follow through on its promise to consider issues of cost and environmental impact, among others. This dissatisfaction is compounded by the city’s history with development projects led by Iowa City super-developer Marc Moen.

In the summer of 2012, for example, the City Council approved up to $2.8 million in TIF for Moen’s 14-story park@201 project in downtown Iowa City, despite a petition signed by more than 800 people calling for the council to put the project to a vote.

Opponents of The Chauncey are right to criticize the way the City Council has made their decisions on recent development projects, but the aftermath of the Chauncey Choice has led a few radical Moen Truthers to adopt conspiracy theories to explain what they’ve seen. To them, the council’s rather hasty Chauncey decision constitutes proof that Marc Moen has the City Council—save for Jim Throgmorton, the lone dissenter—dancing along to the tune of his fiddle.

In addition to The Chauncey and the park@201 development, Moen Group currently manages Brewery Square, Plaza Towers and the buildings occupied by several local establishments including Joseph’s Steakhouse, Graze, AKAR and The Fieldhouse. He is, unquestionably, Iowa City’s go-to developer and his influence on the town is undeniable.

But short of bribery—which nobody is seriously suggesting—there is no mechanism by which Moen could unfairly influence the council’s decision-making.

Chalking up the city’s decision to build The Chauncey to Moen’s allegedly outsized influence distracts from the real problem, and unfairly demonizes the developer.

“This should not be about individuals, but about the decision and the project. This is especially true with regard to Marc Moen,” Jim Throgmorton said. “I have a great deal of respect for Marc. This does not mean, however, that I think this particular project will be good for the city.”

The real problem here was the City Council’s failure to justify or even explain their decision. Some might claim that this is just the way it goes: citizens elect their representatives to make decisions on their behalf and the representatives then make the decisions that they feel will best help their constituency. But this line of reasoning misses a crucial point: Decisions made by representatives must still be justified using some form of measurable and understandable standard, which leads us back to the decision matrix.

By throwing out the rubric, the city flaunted its own agreed-upon standards and instead chose the most expensive, most absurdly scaled, and least environmentally sustainable proposal of the three. Those three criteria together represented 65% of the original decision matrix, and in each category, The Chauncey was arguably the least attractive proposal.

There are, of course, plenty of plausible explanations for the council’s decision—they may have simply chosen the “hot hand” on the development scene, they may have been awestruck by the idea of building a big-ass building, they may have seen The Chauncey as the project with the highest potential return on investment—but who knows?

At the time of this writing, none of the city councilors who supported The Chauncey had responded to our request for comment.

To add our own editorial opinion into the mix, we believe that a number of complaints about The Chauncey are overblown. The considerable TIF funds—$13.4 million—to be appropriated to the project will be recouped, per the terms of all TIF agreements. In fact, The Chauncey will be a major new source of tax revenue for the city. The idea behind TIF investment is to massively increase property values and, thus, the amount of property taxes paid. The completed project is expected to increase property tax revenue by over $1.3 million a year.

There’s no reason to believe that the City’s proposed investment is particularly risky either. All of Moen Group’s current holdings are fully occupied; the park@201 development is on its way toward full occupancy as well.

Some of the aesthetic concerns are certainly valid; the building will be an absolute monolith and it’ll cast a monolithic shadow to be sure. But the guy who lived behind the Sphinx was probably pissed off, too.

Things change, skylines change, neighborhoods change, it happens. The potential utility and beauty of The Chauncey is certainly debatable, the nature of Marc Moen’s impact and influence in Iowa City is debatable, too—the inadequacy of the city’s decision-making process is not. Hopefully, Iowa City will continue to enjoy development opportunities like the one at College and Gilbert, but the City Council must justify their future decisions with greater transparency and a greater concern for public opinion.

Skaaren Cossé is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Finance and International Studies.
Zach Tilly is an undergraduate studying Journalism and Political Science. He also writes for The Daily Iowan and the Washington Post’s swing-state blog, The 12.

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