Chauncey tower question splits council candidate forum

City council candidates discussed environmental issues at Emma Harvat Hall last night. -- photo by Adam Burke
City council candidates discussed environmental issues at Emma Harvat Hall last night. — photo by Adam Burke

Less than fifteen minutes into last night’s city council candidate forum on environmental issues, moderator Tom Carsner split the field with a question about the direction of the tax-increment-financed (TIF) development known as the Chauncey Tower.

Sitting councilors Rick Dobyns and Jim Throgmorton went back and forth on the project after Carsner asked the field, “Iowa City recently gave $14 million in land and TIF subsidies to build the Chauncey Tower. Was it the best civic, financial, environmental decision? Did Iowa City get enough value to justify that expense? Should Iowa City do it again if the next project comes to seek public support?”

Earlier this summer, the 15-story building deal between the city and Moen Group was approved by a 4-2 vote.

District A candidate Pauline Taylor was the first to answer, and while she believes there are appropriate ways to use TIF money, the Chauncey might not have been one of those.

“[TIF] borrows from the tax-base of the community which is not a good thing,” she said. She advised looking at the financial means of the developer to seek a variety of funding streams.

Her opponent in the District A race, incumbent Rick Dobyns, spoke last before rebuttals and follow-ups were heard across the field.

He said he spent time with the proposed projects for the site just south of Chauncey Swan Park and it was clear that the Chauncey Tower was “overwhelmingly” the best development option for the city. He highlighted some of the economic development features that the Chauncey Tower brought to the table and the environmental options that it did not.

One of the other proposals was a Platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified building with a net zero carbon footprint. The Chauncey Tower will be certified at LEED Silver — a far less stringent standard.

Jim Throgmorton bemoaned that the council did not have a chance to deliberate in a public forum about the proposals.

Throgmorton said he was skeptical of whether “the end result would be better than what was there right now” and noted that the adjacent park would be “demolished” for a year or two. He doubted that outdoor film screenings would take place so near the traffic of Gilbert Street.

He doubted that the 15 stories of the building would be “put to good use for the community as a whole.”

The tower will include five one-bedroom apartments that the Iowa City Housing Authority will offer as affordable housing, a move that has drawn ire from some community members who say downtown development often shortchanges the needs of Iowa City’s low income population.

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Challenger and area attorney Rockne Cole has been a long-time opponent of the Chauncey project and championed Tim Dwight’s “404” proposal for its attention to ecologically friendly building practices and green technology. He has also written that when the tower is built he would be an “ardent” supporter.

Like Cole, realtor Tim Conroy is also seeking one of the two at-large seats currently held by Michelle Payne and Throgmorton. Unlike Cole or Throgmorton, Conroy has supported the Chauncey since its unveiling and was optimistic about its future role in the community.

At-large councilor Michelle Payne did not attend the forum and recused herself from the Chauncey vote due to a conflict of interest.

Scott McDonough said he likes the project and spent time with the financial analyst who ran the numbers on the TIF and was reassured that the city had made the right move.

His opponent in the race for District C, former Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission member John Thomas, said a preferable approach would have been for the city to offer tax rebates after the project was completed.

For Thomas, a more important aspect of the project was “measuring and evaluating the public benefit.” He listed a few of the building’s primary uses, including “office space, the rather expensive condominiums, bowling alley and FilmScene” and said he thought they were of questionable public benefit in his view.

In particular, Thomas called out the condominiums, saying, “every property owner in Iowa City, whether wealthy or poor, [is] contributing to that project… It is, in effect, a subsidy by all Iowa City taxpayers to among the wealthiest Iowa Citians.”

Of the candidates present at last night’s forum, Cole used the most forceful language to call attention to the threat of climate change to Iowa City and the world.

“We need to take climate change seriously and that starts with a commitment on the part of this city to have a zero carbon emitting future,” he said.

Wednesday’s forum was organized by Environmental Advocates, Iowa River Friends, Sierra Club – Iowa City Chapter, 100 Grannies, Ecopolis Forum and Backyard Abundance, and was broadcast live on City Channel 4. The forum will replay on several occasions running up to the Nov. 3 election.