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

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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.

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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.

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  1. This is a slap in the face for all those who desperately need affordable housing. 80-100 potential units is no small loss. Does the council feel that someone seeking affordable housing would refuse said housing if it was in a “tall” building? While other towns is Iowa are struggling to remain vibrant, this council is turning up their noses to developments ready, willing and able to add units to the our city. How hypocritical of a “Core Four” that ran on and touts affordable housing as its main priority. If the Pentecrest Garden site is NOT ideal for student housing, across from the Main library, next to the Wellness Center, and NOT in neighborhood, WHERE pray tell would a better site be? It is not this councils job to be design police for developers. Housing needs continue to be it critical demand. ENOUGH already.

  2. By opposing these key, urban, dense projects, The Iowa City City Council’s Core 4 is also telling Millennials like myself who are drawn to vibrant, walkable neighborhoods like downtown, that we AREN’T welcome here. You can’t claim to be “progressive” and then shut out an entire generation just because you don’t like tall buildings. You are elected to represent your city, not elected to lobby your own personal views against tall buildings.

    I want to continue to make a life in Iowa City (where I grew up), but the unwillingness to grow our community, specifically our downtown, will drive me and people my age out of Iowa City to cities like Des Moines, Columbus, Minneapolis, Chicago, Grand Rapids, etc. who have embraced our generation and our desire to live in walkable, dense neighborhoods.

    Many cities and their residents would love to have an area ripe for development like Riverfront Crossings. Mayor Throgmorton was on the city council when the Riverfront Crossings codes were enacted and he supported them at the time. His actions are taking us back not forward. I don’t want us to lose out on a great opportunity.

  3. I would agree with both Susan Mimms and Bobby Jetts remarks, and as someone who was an opponent of the Chauncy project ( because of it’s proximity to a historic district) I am fully supporting this project….it is consistent with the Riverfront crossings plan, no historic buildings are at risk…if not here? Where is it o.k. to building density. 800-1,000 new units downtown could actually increase the vacancy rate locally and actually have the effect of lowering rents overall in our market place….on top of all of these reasons, it is my understanding that the developer is not asking for government assistance in the form of tax increment financing…………..this is “HUGE” !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. This might be a valid argument if any of the developers actually came through with “affordable” housing. I’m not sure what world you’re living in Susan but $1500 a month for a studio apartment is not helpful for low income families, nor will it lower the rent in the area. I would like to believe that this group is genuine and may actually build for students and families in need, but looking at your examples of RISE and the Chauncey tower, all I see is another greedy developer looking to make another quick buck while pretending to help the community.

    1. Rory: The proposal is for 800-1,000. new units in one location downtown. Anytime you introduce that many new units into a market place the overall vacancy rate for the area will go up and rents will go down somewhere in that market place. Perhaps, not downtown where the demand is very high…but in the surrounding neighborhoods with older housing stock…rent will stabilize or go unrented…the exception to this rule is if the population of the area is increasing at a pace faster than units can be added to the market place…which means rents will continue to increase until we build more units to stabilize the market….simple supply/demand argument.

      1. Mark, you know I respect you and add this only because I see another point of view worth discussing.

        Supply and demand can affect prices, sure, but not unless the supplier is motivated enough to take a loss (real or of potential), and the demander believes that the demand is optional.

        I definitely don’t see much of the latter from my end of the rainbow.

  5. Talk about a bad faith argument…

    So, we’re to believe Susan Mims, who lives in the pockets of local developers, suddenly gives a hoot for affordable housing? The same person who for her entire tenure on council has not only ignored the housing crisis in Iowa City but done everything in her power to exacerbate it?

    The truth is Ms. Mims only objects, because council’s decision puts a damper upon the out of control development of high end apartment complexes that not only isn’t doing anything about the affordability crisis but is, in fact, actively making things worse. She objects, because council’s decision harms the interests of her real constituents: local real estate developers.

    It is surprising, I suppose, that she manages to hit on the fact that the core 4 are terrible… if for the wrong reasons. Anyone who has sat through the tedium of a city council meeting, especially when housing issues are being discussed, can tell you that neither Ms. Mims nor the core 4 have done much at all to deal with the housing crisis. There’s no real conflict here. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

  6. Susan, Your article presents this like a decision has been made against the project, from what I read it has only been tabled until July 2nd. I think this project is likely to happen and you are trying to control the narrative for your own purposes ahead of the vote. Why don’t you just ask them how they plan to vote before jumping to conclusions. Has this counsel stopped any multi-million dollar downtown project? None that I recall. I have seen a lot more construction cranes downtown in the last four years than at any other time in past twenty years that I have lived in town.
    This seems like a no brainer since it is not a TIF financed. If the GOP legislature ends it’s revenue back-fill to local governments then this project will help the city solve some of its revenue problems. I bet all of the council understands this and I would be surprised if they don’t end up supporting the Pentecrest Garden project.
    It is more likely that they are pushing the developer to make sure that this will be a quality living space for students.

  7. Who is expected to live in these apartments? Small families? Individuals? A mix? Who is expected to inhabit the non-affordable apartments?

    What is “affordable?” How was $1325/mo for a studio apt. deemed “affordable?”

  8. From I can see, council member Mims is setting up a strawman in that she’s taken words of one of her colleagues out of context and made it sound like that is the only consideration in how that member make decisions. That is patently dishonest positioning. The point is that the city planning and zoning is recommending a change to a zoning ordinance that is part of a comprehensive plan. For a plan to be changed, the case has to be made that it is to the benefit of Iowa Citians for the zoning to be changed. It may come as a surprise to some that Burlington St. is a state highway and currently, the city has been building a canyon in raising buildings on and near it. The fact that UI has added three new dormitories on campus and a host of other developments are being built north and south of Burlington St. also, the current use is already apartments. The developer has said it is not in his interest to build on this property if limited to 8 stories and yet, an earlier developer has done alright with the apartments at the height they are. How do we reconcile this?

    It is not an understatement to say that striking while the iron is hot is the way of all development and downtown development has likely never been hotter than it is right now. I think that a city council member’s job is to evaluate the particulars of an issue and to use their best judgment. No matter how it goes, I see no problem with an elected governmental body taking its time to make a good decision on behalf of those it was elected to serve.

  9. Counselor Mims is quite aware of options available to those who object to changes in the comprehensive plan. Her constituents attempted a variety of arguments and efforts to keep the Hayek council from changing the comprehensive plan with respect to an entire small-commercial block with State-recognized historic sites on South Dubuque Street. (The 600 block has since been replaced with a large apartment building.)

    …Housing density and affordability are outside my expertise. I merely note that Councilor Mims has already forfeited the right to argue from the comprehensive plan as though it were anything but a flexible projection.

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