Letter to the editor: The Iowa City Council is halting valuable housing projects because they don’t like tall buildings

RISE at Riverfront Crossings. — photo by Zak Neumann

By Susan Mims, member of the Iowa City Council

The Core 4 of the Iowa City Council have indicated a potentially major shift for the future of development in Riverfront Crossings. At the May 29 meeting, they added “Review RFC Form Based Code, including density bonus provisions and height allowances” to the list of topics to be discussed at a future work session.

This comes on the heels of the council refusing to move forward with the rezoning of the Pentacrest Garden Apartments at 12 E Court St to “RFC – South Downtown District.” This property is in Rivefront Crossings, just south of Burlington St and just west of the University of Iowa Voxman Music Building.

The rezoning is aligned with the Master Plan (or Comprehensive Plan) which specifically calls out this “superblock” as ideal for student housing. The plan also mentions: “Additional building height and density may be possible if parking demand is accommodated underground or off-site.”

The Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously approved the rezoning. The developer agreed to a Conditional Zoning Agreement which, among other things, gives P&Z the final authority to approve the design plan and dedicates right of way to the city to reopen Capitol Street.

This project would: generate 80-100 affordable housing units; help take pressure off the near campus neighborhoods; generate an estimated $1.4 million in additional annual tax revenue for the City; and reopen Capitol Street. The recent housing study clearly shows that more of this type of development is needed, even with The Rise on Court and Linn.

Why did the council refuse to move forward with the rezoning? Building height. Members of the Core 4 repeatedly expressed concerns about the potential height of the buildings, and three of the four refused to support the rezoning at the May 29 meeting.

There are processes and regulations in place to guide P&Z and the council when considering height bonuses. These are, and should be, totally separate from the rezoning process. While it was appropriate for the council to communicate concerns about height to the developer at this stage, there was no reason to not move forward with the rezoning.

The creation and approval of the Form Based Code was a comprehensive process with a great deal of public input, with months of consideration by Planning & Zoning. P&Z approved the Code 6-1 with John Thomas in the negative. It was approved unanimously by the City Council, including Jim Throgmorton.

The Code was intended to incentivize and guide redevelopment south of Burlington Street using a clear set of standards based on progressive urban planning and a focus on environmental stewardship and the promotion of affordable housing.

It appears that this council is now preparing to move the goal posts when it comes to redevelopment of Riverfront Crossings.

During the Chauncey debate there was much discussion of height and location. In a June 11, 2013 article in the Daily Iowan, Rockne Cole as co-head of the Iowa Coalition against the Shadow commented that “the group welcomes the development of future high-rises on land south of Burlington Street.” While he did not support moving forward with rezoning at the May 15 meeting, he did at the May 29 meeting. However, he did seem to agree with Jim Throgmorton that the project as proposed by the developers is too dense with four buildings each at 15 stories.

Throgmorton, who supported the Form Based Code at the time of its adoption, has now initiated the request that council review that code, specifically the density bonuses and height allowances.

This is not the first opposition to taller buildings from this council. In my opinion, their lack of support for work force housing tax credits was to limit the height of a building on S Linn St. Three of the Core 4 voted against a project in the northside that “might” be five stories.

On a 4-3 vote (Core 4 in favor) the council supported a TIF policy for downtown which effectively restricts heights based on an unvetted height map. It includes language which specifically states at the end of the height section: “The provisions of this section will apply until such time as a Downtown Form-Based Code is adopted.” What will that code look like, and how restrictive will it be with regard to height?

Pauline Taylor has publicly stated, “I don’t like tall buildings.”

They should recognize and address the conflicts between their aesthetic preference for building heights and the many other policies they support, i.e. walkability, preventing urban sprawl, sustainability, etc. Most importantly, it restricts housing supply which pushes rents up, including at the low “affordable” end.

Where do we go from here? The Council will have a consultation with P&Z, tentatively on July 3, regarding the rezoning. Even if the rezoning is granted, will the developer get to use their bonus densities and build to the height they would like? I doubt it with this council.

What will it do to future development in Riverfront Crossings? It increases uncertainty, which discourages development. Developers need to know where the goal posts are, and right now it looks like they are getting ready to move.

This article was updated on June 17 to more accurately reflect Rockne Cole’s actions and comments.