Down by the River

“I hear it all the time,” said local realtor Clay Claussen. “People want to live close to downtown, but not in the heart of the party district.” Unfortunately, he says that demand is not being met. “I’ve got a guy that’s been looking for a year and a half who wants to be close to downtown, but there aren’t a lot of options,” he said.

Iowa City’s Riverfront Crossings district, an area just south of the downtown core, could be the answer this unlucky house hunter has been searching for. Riverfront Crossings (or RivCo, as us wannabe hipsters call it) has been in the redevelopment spotlight since a federal planning grant prompted a series of public meetings in late 2009. Recently released plans now provide a more focused vision of how this area could meet downtown’s growing residential and retail needs.

On January 27, more than 140 people packed into the Iowa City Public Library to see preliminary plans for a southern portion of the district, presented by city officials and their team of consultants. The plan, which was made possible by a federal grant, envisions a transformation of this 76-acre quasi-industrial area into a more walkable, mixed-use neighborhood, featuring a 26-acre riverfront park, 1 million square feet of residential and over 200,000 square feet of retail and office space. Higher densities of three and four-story buildings are shown along sections of South Gilbert and Clinton streets, filled with a mix of residential, retail and office. Plans for the park replace a flood-prone water treatment plant with green space, an amphitheater, a riverfront boardwalk and wetland areas to better handle flood events.

Reactions were mixed. While many like the vision and the rehab of the riverfront, others were concerned about the effect on existing businesses and the feasibility of the project.

Greg McDonald, owner of McDonald Chiropractic, is one of the more enthusiastic ones. He said the plan is needed to transform the hodge-podge area into “more of a neighborhood.”

“It certainly is supportive of what I did on this corner,” McDonald said about his four-story mixed-use building on the corner of Kirkwood and Gilbert streets.

However, not all businesses in the area are exactly gung-ho. Representatives at Aero Rental said their business would likely relocate if the plan was enacted. Laurie Riley of Old Capitol Screen Printers shared a similar thought, saying that although she supported the vision, her light manufacturing business had no place in it. “There’s quite a bit of small manufacturing in the area,” Riley said, “I didn’t see a lot in the plans of where that could fit in.”

In anticipation of these concerns, city officials have emphasized that any changes in the district will not be heavy-handed. “This is not an urban renewal project,” stresses Iowa City Assistant Planner Karen Howard, referring to redevelopment projects of decades past that notoriously bulldozed anything in their path.

Officials say the strategy here is different. “No one is being forced off of their land. The public is investing money that will create value for the private market,” Howard said. The key public investments will be the riverfront park, creek restoration and streetscape improvements, which could include changes such as rerouting one-way streets, widening Gilbert Street and adding “sustainable” features such as bike lanes, pervious paving and street planters.

In theory, these investments will create value for developers by attracting people to the area, improving traffic flow and making the area more visually attractive. With the added value of public investments and the guidance of a detailed plan, Howard said, “we are counting on developers and private property owners to make this vision happen.”

Local developer Marc Moen agrees with this approach. “The city is not going to fast track this by buying and moving current occupants,” Marc commented, “I think that is a good thing.” The public investments in green space and recreation, he adds, are critical to the redevelopment process.

As for the question of demand for new development, officials say it is there. “There is a latent demand to develop higher density near downtown,” said Howard. (Remember the guy that had been looking for downtown living for over a year?) She said some property owners and developers were reluctant to invest in the area with the water treatment plant still in place. But as public investments change the landscape, Howard believes developers will set to work on fulfilling the demand for downtown living and retail. This, in turn, may provide some current property owners an incentive (in the form of a hefty profit) to sell their land for development. Pair all this with the hoped-for turnaround in the economy and the plan for an organic process of private redevelopment looks possible.

Not everyone agrees that investment in the area is realistic. “It’s just a dream,” Becky Baumgartner of Aero Rental said. “It sounds nice, but in a time like this I don’t see how anybody could open up those little boutique shops they want.”

Andy Ockenfels, CEO of City Carton, is also skeptical that the plan will develop any time soon. “A Riverfront Development project may work in the future, but until someone can come up with the money to drive a project like this, I do not believe you will see a lot of business interest waiting for it to happen,” he said. In fact, Ockenfels seems to be betting future plans for his business on the notion of an extended timeline. Though he’s in favor of the plans for the water treatment plant area, many of which show City Carton property as parkland, he said that the business has made no plans to move.

Timing is certainly an issue. The city will make its public investments in the park and the streets, but as to how the private market will respond, no one can say. Certain aspects are more concrete, such as the 3 to 5 year timeline for the riverfront park. Other aspects, such as the proposed widening of Gilbert Street, will require negotiation and cooperation from all affected property owners, making a definite timeline impossible.

Another wrench in the process is the potential loss of the proposed passenger rail line connecting Iowa City to Chicago. The line would have run straight through the district, creating a natural hub of activity and promoting development. Federal funding for the line was secured last year, but Gov. Terry Branstad has now said he will not provide state money for its operation, putting the entire project in jeopardy.

Despite the uncertainty and setbacks, odds seem to be in favor of change in the area. “This whole process has been accelerated by the flood,” Howard said. In fact, the flood is arguably the reason why planning in this district has been able to take place at all. Both the present and previous federal grants were earned in large part because of the pressing need to decommission the wastewater treatment plant after it was flooded in 2008, and to find an appropriate re-use.

In addition to needed flood response, the area is well-situated for development in many other ways, with accessibility to downtown and the university, a regional trail network and significant past and planned investments from the county, the university (Clapp Recital Hall and the School of Music) and private developers (Hieronymus Square Project).

“I believe this area is ripe for residential development,” says Moen. “We need a critical mass of diverse residents–students and non-students; young and old and in-between–living within walking distance of downtown.”

But the way this is all done matters a great deal, Moen explains. Any redevelopment should make sure to respond to the demands of those most likely to live here, which for him means maintaining the “funky flavor” of the area as much as possible. Moen compares RivCo to the developing area just north of downtown: “The Northside Marketplace is very hip and keeps getting better. I see the same potential for Riverfront Crossings, but with a different twist.”

Exactly what this “funky twist” will be is still undetermined. Will this be the mixed-use, sustainable, recreational haven the city hopes for? Or will it just be another neighborhood full of student apartments?

The answer largely depends on how we as citizens respond to city initiative. Based on the process to date and feedback from the public, the consultants will submit a final plan within the coming months. But, when they do, don’t expect to see any magic overnight transformations. A number of city and private investments are a sure thing, but much of the plan is meant as a guide, a reflection of what the public has told the city they want and how consultants have recommended they get there. Developers, property owners and members of the community will be the ones to drive most of the change and their “funky” visions will likely take decades to form.

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