Historic cottages on South Dubuque Street in danger

Cottages in danger
The cottages on South Dubuque St., which date back to the 19th century, may be torn down if the City of Iowa City decides to reclassify the area as a mixed-use zone. — photo by Eric Kuehl

The Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission will consider the fate of three 19th century cottages today at 7 p.m. in City Hall.

The commission will review an application, submitted by Hodge Construction, that seeks to rezone the 600 block of South Dubuque Street from a commercial land zone to a mixed-use building zone. The company hopes to construct a four-story complex “with retail and residential purposes,” according to John Yapp, the of Iowa City Development Services Coordinator.

The proposal suggests tearing down the cottages at 608, 610 and 614 Dubuque St., which has led to consternation among community members and business owners alike. The structures are some of the last remaining workers cottages in Iowa City, as well as some of the last remaining historic structures in Iowa City’s former railroad district.

“The loss of these three cottages would mean the loss of Iowa City history and charm,” said Erica Blair, Multimedia Specialist at the Salvage Barn. “They represent how ordinary, working class residents once lived. Though these people were equally important to the establishment and growth of this town, very few examples of this kind of architecture still exist in Iowa City.”

At the moment, the three cottages are inhabited by The Book Shop, Suzy’s Antiques & Gifts and Moy Yat Ving Tsun Kung Fu Academy. Also included in the 2.3 acre plot is The Broken Spoke, Plumb Supply and a strip with various small businesses. The proposal does not specify what would happen to these businesses if the cottages are to be torn down.

“We at the Moy Yat Ving Tsun Kung Fu Academy have had 21 wonderful years of training at the South Dubuque location,” said Moy Yat Ving Tsun Kung Fu Academy owner Sifu Bryan Pierce. “We would like to continue training in the same location indefinitely.”

Pierce says that if his building is torn down, his company would re-open a new location as quickly as possible. The academy has a sister school in Coralville, he said, which would assist the academy during its transfer period.

Pierce says that instructors from the academy have gone on to open schools across the country. “That space has lots of history and great meaning for us,” he said.

Hodge Construction deems the buildings structurally unsound, and says that preserving the buildings on-site, or moving them, is unfeasible. The company has offered to historically document the cottages prior to demolition.

If the buildings are preserved and renovated, however, development could still proceed if the city offers Hodge a “density bonus.”

“In other words, if the cottages are saved, the City would permit a greater height allowance for adjacent buildings. In this case, if the developer keeps the cottages, the proposed four-story apartment/retail complex could be doubled in height,” said Blair.

While that scenario would save the cottages for now, Blair says it isn’t enough.

“The cottages have no formal protections. Ultimately, the cottages need to be designated as local landmarks. This would prevent them from being demolished in the future,” Blair said. “What we really need to do now is pack City Hall on Nov. 20.”

Although Yapp won’t speculate on whether the plan will pass, he does note that passing the Planning and Zoning Commission is only the first stage.

“Rezoning actions go through a legislative process including a review and recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission, a public hearing before City Council and three votes before the City Council,” said Yapp.

He also said that there are other factors that could impact the decision, including whether the plan is consistent with the Riverfront Crossings Plan.

“[The Riverfront Crossings Plan] is poised for lots of exciting redevelopment. But there needs to be a balance between progress and preservation,” Blair said.

The Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, tonight at City Hall, is open to the public, and citizens are encouraged to come voice their opinion on the plan. It starts at 7 p.m. and the Cottages on Dubuque will be the first item on the agenda. More information can be found in the Commission Agenda.

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