Ecopolis makes last-ditch effort to save control house from demolition

The North Wastewater Sewage Treatment facility control house -- photo by Adam Burke
The North Wastewater Sewage Treatment facility control house — photo by Adam Burke

The environmental group Ecopolis is continuing their push to save the abandoned North Wastewater Treatment facility control house tonight, as the Iowa City Council holds a public hearing to decide the fate of the building — which may soon be demolished.

Ecopolis, a local group of activists that formed last year to push Iowa City in a greener, more sustainable and food-friendly direction, has criticized city plans to eliminate the control house, and even claimed the structure as their own in a tongue-in-cheek guerrilla event in January. They are seeking to turn the building into a community center to house a variety of groups, including ecological, food-based and arts groups.

The control house sits in the Riverfront Crossing District, some 80 acres south of downtown that is partly inside the 500- and 100-year flood plains. The grounds of the sewage treatment facility are currently undergoing cleanup due to mercury contamination in the water storage tanks south of the control house. In addition, asbestos has been removed from the control house itself in preparation for the demolition phase of the building.

Part of the IFMP plan for a Riverfront park includes a creating a wetland area and restoring Ralston Creek. The park project will bond $8.5 million of future sales taxes granted from the Iowa Flood Mitigation Program (IFMP).

Iowa City planner Karen Howard said that the demolition of the control house is not contingent on the creek and wetlands project. Ecopolis members say the structure does not need to be torn down immediately and have asked for more time to raise money to save it.

Last month, a memo to the City Councilors noted that because of a lack of funds, much of the park would sit as “vacant grassy land for a number of years.”

The memo also noted that the IFMP grant can be amended to save the control house.

If the city pursued an amendment, an estimated $554,000 would be needed to rescue the building. The half million dollars does not include transitioning the space into a programmable public space or the operating costs of a new community space.

Tonight Ecopolis members will speak out about delaying demolition so they can come up with funding for their “Ecopolis Center.”

Ecopolis group member Jeff Biggers previously wrote in an email to Little Village, “The ‘Ecopolis Center’ was envisioned by a broad range of residents as a public space for a broad range of groups, arts, entrepreneurs, educators, and innovators like Backyard Abundance and Soilmates, among many—not a single group intent on gaining control of a single building.”

Before Ecopolis began their efforts to save the historic building, Arts Iowa City (AIC) wanted it.

For several years, AIC has been looking for a space to put an “ArtiFactory,” a community arts space. Last January, AIC proposed the control house as a location for the art center, but withdrew it upon learning of the IFMP grant and then considering the recurrent flooding in the area.

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“We love the building,” AIC Executive Director Amy Weber said. She added that her group needed more square footage and would need to build an addition. They also couldn’t reconcile the potential for occasional flooding plus the costs of renovation.

However, she said her group supports “the idea of the building being preserved in some flood-compatible form as part of the park.”

Patricia Knox, the president of AIC said, “It’s a great location for an Ecopolis Center and we would hope to collaborate with them in creative ways.”

Plans for the rest of the park will be wrapping up in the next several weeks, but the public is still welcome to offer input and suggestions. Howard said consultants are preparing a master plan for the park based on public input and the parameters of various grant agreements. The plan will be presented to the Parks and Recreation Commission on April 8.

She also noted that the plan is a guide, but public parks are a “flexible canvas that can be modified and improved in response to evolving community needs and desires over time.

“Our Parks Department continually responds to ideas and input from the community regarding programming and physical improvements to parks and trails throughout the community,” Howard said.

For more information about the plan and new neighborhood, go to the city web page for the Riverfront Crossing District.

You can email comments about the park plan to Karen Howard at

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that the Ecopolis Forum had wanted the control house building for their headquarters. This is inaccurate, and the article has been update to reflect this. Little Village regrets this error.

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