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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  1. I thought Mayor Throgmorton asked the Council not to indicate how they would vote on any given rezoning while a proposed project was in public hearing? John Thomas, sitting Council member, just signaled how he will vote based on the facts he laid out in this piece.

    1. This piece outlines the benefits of mid-rise and high-rise developments within a flexible, but goal-driven, plan. The only declaration I see here is that thinking through goals and proposals is more complicated than having an aesthetic or being pro- or anti-development. That’s good. This is not a football game. There are not just two opposing sides. We need strategies for hundreds of players with different endgames.

      Each project is going to be different; projects approved will affect future projects; I’m relieved that someone on City Council has a clear, informed process of considering each one.

      Perhaps those on council who want to boil things down to mere “for or against” should run for state office, where partisan politics are the norm.

  2. An important issue and read for the Iowa City community: “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.”

    Also, from a student perspective: “In my mind, yes, it is important that Iowa City continues to grow. But it is far more important that the city grows in the right way. In order to do that, the city absolutely must work to lower its unattainable cost of living. As a college student, I would love to live in a luxurious apartment with tons of amenities. Sadly, my reality is that after paying for tuition, books, and supplies for school, I have about $450 left a month for rent. So, if Iowa City decides to expand student-housing options, affordability must be a top priority.” (

    Most would agree that, in the days of decreasing state appropriations and rising tuition, this community surely does not need another “luxury living space that gives University of Iowa students a comfortable, chic retreat from the hustle and bustle of academic life.” (RISE – $1,509 per unit 1 bed/1 bath)

    (Sidenote on also not needed: more clickbait “Sign a lease within the next 24 hours to redeem $500 signing bonus! Don’t wait, this deal won’t last long!”)

    For more on Master Plan, follow link in LV article. For a snippet on city “block” in question:

    “SD – 4: Capitol Street Student Housing – As the superblock
    bounded by Burlington Street, Court Street, Clinton Street, and Madison Street redevelops, Capitol Street should be extended to connect Burlington Street and Court Street. This would reconnect the original street grid in this location, and make two development blocks with prime street frontage. Due to its close proximity to campus and the student recreation center, this site would be ideal for student housing. In particular, university-sponsored, off-campus, privately developed (owned and operated) efficiency or suite style apartments would be appropriate on this site. Situated
    internally, this site could accommodate up to 6 buildings (urban frontage surrounding internal courtyards), and yield well over 700 rooms. Additional building height and density may be possible if parking demand is accommodated underground or off-site.”

    Also, especially for student housing: any “affordable housing” should be mandated ON-site, because no-one really knows where OFF-site might be, not-unlike workforce housing matters.

    Finally: some renderings seem to show rooftop solar panels, some not. Which is it? Relatedly: could IC Council also work on solar/greenroof mandate? How about rain-water capture? Such current and upcoming building footprints could be assets with regards to the city/county sustainability goals. I was glad to see that RISE amenities include secure bike storage.

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