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Letter to the editor: Building heights and the future of development in Riverfront Crossings

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Riverfront Crossings District
Riverfront Crossings District — via the City of Iowa City

By John Thomas, member of the Iowa City Council

Iowa City Council’s consideration of a rezoning application for 12 Court St in the Riverfront Crossings District has sparked a kerfuffle about high-rise buildings and the future of development in Iowa City. The debate generally centers on building heights. Whether one supports high-rise buildings — that is, any building over nine stories — is typically framed as an aesthetic preference: either one likes them, or not. Furthermore, some high-rise advocates cast those with concerns regarding the potentially negative impacts of high-rise buildings as “anti-development.” What is one to make of these claims? Is the question of building heights a matter of personal taste, or are there other factors to consider?

The Downtown & Riverfront Crossings Master Plan

Building heights in Riverfront Crossings were addressed in the 2013 Downtown & Riverfront Crossings Master Plan. The Plan was adopted after a three-year public planning process. In brief, the Plan’s vision is to create mixed-use neighborhoods of various character and density; safe, walkable streets; and easily accessible parks and green spaces.

Central to the Plan was a market analysis of the anticipated demand for commercial and residential development within the Study Area over the foreseeable future. The Plan then took the next step, identifying potential sites where that development would likely occur — 171 sites in all.

The market analysis of Riverfront Crossing’s overall development potential, translated into the Plan’s development yield analysis on those 171 sites, envisions a Riverfront Crossings District that is three-dimensionally illustrated on page 52 of the Plan. From the standpoint of building heights, the plan relies primarily on mid-rise buildings, ranging from four to nine stories, distributed in a density gradient across the Study Area. The South Downtown neighborhood has the highest density, with development density tapering off further from downtown, except along portions of the Iowa River. Buildings over nine stories were proposed for five locations east of the Iowa River: the Linn/Court site (the Rise); the Burlington/Clinton site (Hilton Garden Inn); and three sites near the new Riverfront Crossings Park.

The Benefits of Riverfront Crossings’ Mid-Rise Urbanism

What are the benefits of the mid-rise development as recommended by the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan? By distributing the development potential over the entire Riverfront Crossings District, the Plan achieves an important planning goal: urbanizing the entire district at a higher density. This higher density over a large area has many co-benefits:

  • More streets are activated by more pedestrians and bicyclists
  • More streets are safer with more residents living near street level (“eyes on the street”)
  • Traffic congestion and pollution diluted over a wider area
  • More blocks with at least 16 units per acre to support neighborhood commercial and public transit
Adoption of the Riverfront Crossings Form-Based Code, and the Increased Potential for High-Rise Development

Following the adoption of the Plan, a Form-Based Code (FBC) was developed to implement it. Approved by the council in 2014, the Riverfront Crossings FBC allows, through the provision of up to seven bonus floors, up to 15 stories in the South Downtown and Park neighborhoods. The Rise, located at Linn/Court Streets, was the first project in the South Downtown to reach 15 stories. If approved with maximum bonus heights, the 12 Court project would consist of four 15-story buildings.

What are the consequences of allowing building heights significantly exceeding the recommended heights in the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan? By concentrating higher densities on certain development sites, high-rise buildings reduce the extent and vibrancy of the urban sphere of redevelopment envisioned in the Plan. In addition, high-rises as a building type have certain potentially negative impacts, including:

  • Higher building costs, resulting in higher rents
  • Increased shadow effects and loss of sky views at street level
  • Obstructed views of civic landmarks, such as Old Capitol and the Johnson County Courthouse
  • Increased speculation on land values, due to the potential for taller building heights allowed under the bonus height provisions

It was for these reasons, in addition to the market analysis, that high-rises were given a limited role in the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan. In addition to the Hilton Garden Inn and The Rise, three 10-story buildings are envisioned near Riverfront Crossings Park and the Iowa River. In the downtown area south of Burlington, the Plan indicates moderately sized high-rises at key street corners, primarily along the Burlington Street corridor.

Achieving a Vibrant Riverfront Crossings District

Iowa City is fortunate to have the opportunity to transform Riverfront Crossings into a model of urban redevelopment. Grounded on the market realities of anticipated demand for housing and commercial development, it optimizes the benefits of growth over the entire district, while creating a diverse range of vibrant neighborhoods. The Plan includes buildings of all types and sizes, including high-rises, carefully placing them to achieve a coherent composition of city making.

So, when a member of City Council or the community raises concerns about rezoning applications such as 12 East Court, those concerns are not about personal “aesthetic preferences” or being “anti-development.” Rather, they are about whether 12 Court St or any other proposed project is consistent with the vision expressed in the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan, a vision enthusiastically embraced by the Iowa City community.


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