Iowa City Council rezones Northside property despite concerns about building height, senior housing

The current location of the Central State Bank at 202 N Linn St was rezoned to make way for a multi-use building. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

Following news during the Tuesday Iowa City Council meeting that designated senior housing would no longer be possible at a planned multi-use building on the corner of Linn and Market streets, city council members nearly denied rezoning the plot. The council ultimately approved the change in a 4 to 3 vote, with Rockne Cole, Pauline Taylor and John Thomas voting no. Mayor Jim Throgmorton changed his previous vote from no to yes, tipping the balance in favor of approval.

The rezoning allows a higher density of housing units, reduces the required number of parking spaces and increases the height allowance on the property.

Developer Ross Nusser will go forward with the purchase of the property, but said he is planning to hold additional neighborhood meetings to address the design of the proposed building at the location that currently houses a Central State Bank branch (202 N Linn St). He said he will take some time before those meetings to incorporate feedback from city council into an updated design.

Nusser had previously planned to designate two floors of the building as senior housing, but announced during the meeting that the designation would go against a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rule. The rule states that a building must be at least 80 percent senior housing (designated for anyone over the age of 55). An age restriction can not be put on housing that takes up a smaller percentage of a building.

“I am a strong advocate that two floors should be dedicated to senior housing, but that is not able to happen because of a bizarre Housing and Urban Development rule,” Nusser said.

He said he found out about this rule — which he said both of his attorneys overlooks in their initial reading of the code — after the previous council meeting. He added that he would do everything he can to make the building accessible for seniors.

“I will incorporate wider doors and hallways, make every bathroom handicap accessible,” he said. “I am very committed to this idea of senior housing, but I cannot come out and say these apartments will be age-restricted housing.”

Council Member Susan Mims spoke in support of Nusser.

“I’ve known Ross and his family for a long long time, and I know that what he says about senior housing he is going to do,” she said. “He is dedicated to making this available and attractive and marketing it to seniors. For those of you who said senior housing was a big component of this project for you, it was never legally binding since the start of this project.”

However, some council members backed out of their support for this plan without the senior living component.

“I came into this meeting in support of the project and the senior housing was the central component of that,” Cole, who voted no, said. “Now we find out 10 minutes ago that we have no way to enforce that. I’m having a lot of concerns about where we’re at.”

City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said senior housing “can be tricky.” For example, she said if a certain percentage of a building is restricted to seniors and one of those units is occupied by a senior and a younger partner, should the senior in that unit pass, it would leave the unit to a non-senior, setting the percentage off balance.

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Photo by Lauren Shotwell

As for the zoning of the property, Council Member Thomas said he did research on the history of rezoning in the rest of Iowa City and came to the conclusion that the proposed rezoning is inconsistent with the rest of the Northside neighborhood. Although he said he would like to see the building restricted to four stories, if the building were to be five stories, he said, he would like to see the fourth and fifth floors pushed back 10 feet from the outer edge of the first three, to better capture the character of the neighborhood.

Throgmorton also had concerns about the height of the building, saying he voted against the rezoning at the last city council meeting due to concerns that a five story building could have negative effects on the surrounding community by increasing market pressures and potentially making living in the Northside more expensive for many people.

He suggested deferring the decision until the next council meeting, but Nusser said that if the zoning were not approved Tuesday, the project would not be completed.

“I think the building should not be more than four stories in height,” Throgmorton said, addressing Nusser, after changing his vote. “If it is, it will create some negative ripple effects in the neighborhood that you care about. I also think you have to have senior housing in it.”

To ease qualms over the issue of height, Nusser said it would be “very difficult” to get five stories without the senior component. Nusser said that despite legal setbacks, his “commitment to senior housing has not changed, but I believe I have been trying to get good community feedback that I have incorporated into the design.”

For example, previous feedback from about 20 individuals in attendance at a good neighbor meeting at the Iowa City Public Library in March caused Nusser to alter the preliminary building plan. Following that meeting, he incorporated a corner cut to match the other three corner buildings on Linn and Market Streets and added solar panels on the roof. Nusser assured city council members that he will hold additional good neighbor meetings. Moving forward, he encouraged more residents to give feedback, not just on the aesthetics of the building, but also about the role they would like building to play in the community.

But the uncertainty left some members of the city council concerned.

“What are we approving? We don’t know what direction the project will go,” Thomas, who voted no, said.

Though it is uncertain what the ultimate height of the building will be, Nusser said, “I believe I have made every good effort to show I am committed to this community and to this project and don’t want to do anything that would burden this neighborhood.”

He said that it is first important to get the building design and scale right, but that once those elements were in place and the purchase of the property was complete, he anticipated the building being finished around early to mid-2019.

See previous coverage: New construction may change Northside landscape in Iowa City