City Council may hold public hearing on whether to designate cottages as historic landmarks

Three cottages on South Dubuque Street are facing demolition. Photo by Adam Burke
Three cottages on South Dubuque Street are facing demolition. — photo by Adam Burke

The Iowa City City Council decided Tuesday to schedule a special session that could determine the fate of three historic cottages currently facing demolition. The session will decide whether to hold a public meeting to determine whether the 150-year old buildings on South Dubuque Street will receive historic landmark status. Officials say the meeting will be held at some point within the next week, though no date and time have been decided at the time of publication.

In November, Iowa City’s Planning and Zoning Commission received a rezoning application from Hodge Construction that would change the 600 block of South Dubuque Street and the 200 block of Prentiss Street from commercial zones to a Riverfront Crossings zone, a special district slated for development and revitalization by the city.

The controversy over the cottages began on Nov. 20, when building owner Ted Pacha submitted a structural inspection report from VJ Engineering that showed the cottages were unstable and ready for demolition. Later that same day, a public hearing in the Planning and Zoning Commission drew some 60 preservationists who did not want to see the historic buildings razed. The commission deferred a vote on the rezoning request and asked Pacha to allow a second structural inspection. By the next day, Hodge withdrew its rezoning request until the results of the second inspection could be reviewed.

On Nov. 24, the day before filing a demolition permit application with the city, Pacha served his tenants with a notice to terminate their leases by Dec. 31 through a Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputy, a standard procedure for landlords who want to evict. That same day, Iowa City Building Inspections Services staff issued a notice to vacate each of the cottages based on concerns found in the initial inspection report, prepared by VJ Engineering. This notice ordered the properties to be vacated and the structures to be repaired or demolished by Dec. 8.

Later that day that the Friends of Historic Preservation arranged for an inspection of the buildings that were deemed dangerous and unstable through a crowd-funded campaign that raised money for an independent inspector, Morning Star Studio of Cedar Rapids.

The inspection was not authorized by Pacha, and he was informed of it later. He had a lawyer call Morning Star Studios to ask about what permissions had been granted. Friends of Historic Preservation director Alicia Trimble led the inspection team with the consent of the tenants but not their landlord, Pacha. She was accompanied by Marlin Ingalls and Rich Carlson who are architectural historians with the State Archaeologists office, as well as mason worker Rob Owen.

In contrast to the report from VJ Engineering which concluded that repair of brick walls was not possible, the new report recommended repair and re-pointing the brick and mortar.

The report was filed Dec. 2 and found some superficial issues consistent with the advanced age of the brick cottages, but stated, “Overall, the buildings are structurally sound.” The report was prepared by Morning Star engineer Shanna Duggan, and recommended providing new support to walls for settlement issues in two of the buildings and repair and replacing gutters and drain spouts.

Now, because of the conflicting reports, Iowa City city councilors agreed to schedule a meeting to decide whether to hold a public hearing about creating historic landmark designations for the cottages. At a minimum, this process takes 60 days and must pass through the Historic Preservation Committee and the Planning and Zoning Commission before being passed by the city council.

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