Community members, business owners gather to discuss preservation of historic IC locations

Washington Street renovations
What is to become of the 100 block of Washington Street? — photo by Drew Bulman

A community forum to discuss the future of historic buildings in downtown Iowa City will take place Wednesday evening at MidWestOne Bank on the corner of Clinton and Washington streets. The meeting, sponsored by Friends of Historic Downtown, will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a brief guided tour of MidWestOne Bank’s recently restored headquarters on the 6th floor, followed by a discussion at 7 p.m.

Event organizer Rockne Cole says the goal of the forum, which will take place shortly after the tour, is to start a discussion between community members and business leaders about Iowa City’s lack of regulations preventing property owners from demolishing historic buildings downtown.

This meeting has been in the making since last April, when a proposal was made by developer Michael Frantz to build what Cole now refers to as a “five-story, $60 million glass box” between the Jefferson and MidWestOne Bank buildings on Washington Street in downtown Iowa City. At the time, Cole, a founding member of the sustainability advocacy group Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow (ICATS), worked with members of the local historic preservation community to organize a community gathering to discuss their concerns about Frantz’s proposal.

Cole says attendees to that meeting included Brown Bottle owner Dave Landau, MidWestOne Executive Vice President Kent Jehle, several current and former Iowa City city council members as well as concerned community members. After the meeting ended, Cole says MidWestOne Bank made it clear that, having heard the negative response from the community, they wouldn’t be moving forward with Frantz’ proposal.

“They’ve agreed that they’re not going to do the development, we had our meeting, got the community input and at least that part of it appears to be over,” Cole said. “So what’s next?”

“We want to understand what the community wants,” Frantz told We Create Here earlier this year, “[The Glass Building] knocked us all on our heels a little bit.”

Cole has since been meeting with members of the local historic preservation community, like Jayne McGuire, to try to find out what can be done to help safeguard historic properties downtown. McGuire is active in the Main Streets historic preservation program. Main Streets is an organization that helps communities identify and protect their historic assets, and it has already been implemented in several Iowa cities, including Ames and Le Mars. McGuire will be giving a short presentation at Wednesday’s meeting about the Main Streets program, and how it could be implemented in downtown Iowa City.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum on this particular topic,” Cole said. “The city did try in the early ’90s, but at the time, Iowa City in the ’90s did not have any of the modern glass developments, didn’t have the height, and the sense was that there wasn’t any need to do it because we already had a historic downtown. Now I don’t think we can be so confident … The street that The Airliner is on, there is no protection. So if you were to get a millionaire developer that just wanted to buy it and build a five story glass box, you could have a demolition permit within a week.”

“A lot of people don’t know that,” Cole said.

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