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As Iowa City plans demolition of wastewater control house, Ecopolis hopes to preserve it


North Wastewater Treatment Facility front door  -- photo by Adam Burke
North Wastewater Treatment Facility front door — photo by Adam Burke

This Saturday, Feb. 21, the Ecopolis Forum will lead a discussion of ideas for the proposed Riverfront Crossings District Park. The grass-roots group has their sights on turning the condemned North Wastewater Treatment Plant control house building into a community center.

Years of urban planning by city officials have led up to the current phase of the Riverfront Crossings District, an 80-acre neighborhood south of downtown Iowa City that was inundated by a flood and largely remains an industrial eyesore.

The now-defunct sewage control house structure still stands on in the center of the area, but is slated for demolition by the city using grant money from the state through the Iowa Flood Mitigation Program (IFMP).

Mercury contamination found in the abandoned water treatment basins behind the building is currently being abated through testing, excavation and removal. Iowa City engineer Ben Clark said the mercury cleanup is almost two-thirds complete.

A memo to the City Council dated Feb. 18 states that the city can seek an amendment to the agreement with the IFMP that would preserve the control house but noted that it was unlikely that any additional funds could be expected to restore it.

An estimated $554,000 would be needed to bring the control house to an operable condition, but not a programmable one for public use. According to the memo, for programming use, additional funding would be needed for utility services, flood protection measures, ADA improvements including ramps, upgraded doorways and an elevator, interior remodeling, restroom expansions, exterior signage and landscaping and ongoing future operating expenses.

Citing the closures and programs rescheduled or canceled at City Park in recent years due to flooding, the memo states that, “The constant protection and cleanup efforts are not economically sustainable for the City or any other organization that may ultimately rely on the programmed space within the park,” particularly in a park like Riverfront that is being designed to take on flood water.

Because of budgetary constraints, the memo states, “it is likely the future park site will sit as vacant grassy land for a number of years.”

Project staff reviewed the control house demolition plans with the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office and concluded that the control house does not appear eligible for listing on the National Register of Historical Places.

The memo ultimately suggests that the plans for demolition proceed and the Council set a public hearing on the project.

Tomorrow’s Ecopolis event comes a month after a city-sponsored community event on Jan. 24 involving many Ecopolis members, followed by the Jan. 28 Ecopolis “grand-opening” of their self-proclaimed headquarters at the North Wastewater Treatment Plant control house, a tongue-in-cheek guerrilla grab at making the marked-for-demolition building their own.

The Riverfront area has been the target of revitalization efforts since the 2008 flood that includes grants from federal and state agencies and a major development push. Iowa City is working to create a new neighborhood south of downtown, dubbed the Riverfront Crossing District (RCD), which constitutes 80 acres (roughly 10 square blocks) south of Burlington Street that have been targeted for urban renewal, flood mitigation and green infrastructure by city planners.

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How record rains led Iowa City to target the flood-prone area

In June 2008, catastrophic flooding in the Midwest came after one of the wettest periods in the history of the region. Nine Iowa rivers crested at record levels and 83 of 99 Iowa counties were declared disaster areas.

Flooding on the Cedar River caused billions of dollars in damages and over 1,100 daily precipitation records were broken throughout the Midwest. The damage in Iowa City, though substantial, was less than predicted, while Cedar Rapids was inundated with higher-than-predicted flood levels.

Although still recovering, Cedar Rapids has bounced back and revitalized neighborhoods like the New Bohemia with FEMA money, and the University of Iowa is building a new art building with FEMA money as well.

A pre-history of planning for the Riverfront Crossings District

In 2009, Iowa City received federal money from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Smart Growth Assistance Program to begin addressing the flood damage by focusing on the Riverfront area. Five other Iowa communities received Smart Growth funding “to improve quality of life, stimulate economic opportunity, and become more resilient to future floods.”

By 2010, Iowa City was one of just five communities in the country to receive a grant from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a joint initiative of the EPA, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

The grant provides technical assistance to create a more detailed plan for a sub-area of Riverfront Crossings, which includes areas along South Gilbert Street, Ralston Creek, the Iowa River, and the site of the City’s North Wastewater Treatment Plant on Kirkwood Avenue.

Iowa City was later chosen as a Partnership for Sustainable Communities: Brownfields Pilot Project community, which assisted the city in developing more detailed development plans for the Riverfront Crossings District.

Developing the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan

In 2010-2011, Iowa City planners began to assemble a Master Plan for the area and held a community design charrette from November 29 to December 1, 2011.

The Master Plan for the Riverfront Crossings District was adopted by the City Council in early 2013 and calls for substantial development initiatives in the newly designated zone, specifically in regards to multi-modal transportation options and mixed-use zoning for retail businesses, offices and affordable housing.

On Saturday, Ecopolis Forum is holding a “bold” visioning session for the Riverfront Park. Their park concepts, which include community gardens, fruit and nut trees, greenhouses and a bandshell for outdoor performances, are true to their mission of creating the first regenerative city of the arts, food, renewable energy and commerce in the heartland.

The “Ecopolis Center” envisioned by the group is a public space for a broad range of groups, arts, entrepreneurs, educators and innovators.

“Shaping a Bold Vision for the Riverfront Park,” will be led by Fred Meyer, the director of Backyard Abundance and a nationally recognized permaculture and local food expert, and co-hosted by Jenna Ladd, a former UI student gardener. They will lead public discussion over the future plans of the Riverfront Crossings Park, and discuss how the City and the community can work collaboratively to create a legacy project.

The structure, like the Johnson County Administration building and others in the low-lying neighborhood, sits in the 500-year flood plain, a fact that Ecopolis group members have used to rebut the arguments from the city that the control house should be torn down because it lies in a flood-prone area. The sewage control house was built in 1935.

A public hearing on the plans and specifications for the demolition of PWA building will take place at the City Council meeting on March 9.

Tomorrow’s discussion on community ideas for the park will be held at the Iowa City Public Library from 10-11:30 a.m. in Meeting Room A. All are welcome to weigh in on the park plans.


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