Iowa City council aims to ensure development saves century-old church, without breaking the bank

The former Unitarian Universalist Society building on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street is at the heart of a proposed development in Iowa City. -- photo by Zak Neumann
The former Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City church building on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street is at the heart of a proposed development in Iowa City. — photo by Zak Neumann

Plans to preserve the 109-year-old, former Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City church building moved forward Tuesday night during an Iowa City Council work session. Updated plans would keep the church while lowering city expenses connected to a planned mixed-use development on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street — an area currently occupied by the church and the city hall parking lot.

During a previous city council meeting on Jan. 17, council members were divided over expenses associated with development plans. The development has been under discussion since late 2015, when an initial plan was determined not to be financially viable.

The plan presented to the council during its previous meeting included preserving the church, building a parking ramp, three new fire truck bays and commercial and residential units (15 of which would be reserved for affordable housing). Facing a price tag for the city of about $9.35 million, the council decided to delay a decision until Jan. 31.

Updated plans presented Tuesday by City Manager Geoff Fruin and the project’s developer Jesse Allen would save the city money by allowing it to retain the roughly $3 million from the sale of the land, rather than turning around and spending it on fire truck bays, which Fruin said were unnecessary, and city-required parking spaces.

Two plans presented during Tuesday’s session would allow the city to retain either 133 or 60 parking spaces. The council agreed to devise a parking code amendment to determine how many spaces are required for the development before a final decision is made. City officials said they were willing to reconsider the number of required parking spaces in exchange for preserving the church, which was the catalyst for the project in the first place.

In considering an option with limited parking, requiring some residents to park on the street, Council Member Rockne Cole said it could be a good opportunity to go through with a pilot project to determine what impact street parking would have on the surrounding neighborhood.

One option Allen proposed, which piqued the interest of council members, was providing six to 10 zipcars for residents to use, reducing the number of parking spaces needed. He also talked about adding hanging bike racks for residents, something he said has been popular in his other developments.

Council members took the time to outline a wish-list for the new development, including installing solar panels to reduce carbon emissions and having enough of a buffer between the sidewalk and residences to respect residents’ privacy.

Going forward, city staff will prepare a parking code amendment and send it the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission for approval. Developers and city officials said they hoped to be able to break ground on the new project in the spring.

The plan drew significant interest from the community. Following the city council meeting on Jan. 17, individuals sent emails and snail-mail alike urging the council to vote yes for “Plan B” (the plan initially presented during that meeting). All 26 letters included in the information packet expressed support for the plan, with nearly all citing support for the affordable housing component and fire station improvements. Sixteen of the 26 letters stressed the need to preserve the historic church structure.

On Tuesday, Thomas said the support from the community was “all the more reason to move forward.”

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