Proposed development next to Hickory Hill Park is halted amid public outcry

Axiom Consultant’s proposed development site to the east of Hickory Hill Park. — City of Iowa City

A plan to build houses, condos and a retirement village adjacent to Hickory Hill Park hit a wall last week when the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) voted unanimously to send developers back to the drawing board.

The 0-7 vote against the development came after a three-hour discussion of its merits by commission members and the public over Zoom on Thursday night. Dozens of community members spoke out against the project, causing the meeting to run nearly two hours over schedule.

The development proposed by Axiom Consultants would be built on 48.75 acres of private land owned by ACT Incorporated, south of Scott Boulevard and West of 1st Avenue. The development would have bordered Hickory Hill Park, with a buffer zone between homes and the park that ranged from 35 to 202 feet in width.

The applicant intends to develop the property with a combination of approximately 43 detached single-family residential homes and 10 detached single-family condominium dwelling units over 39.37 acres. The remaining 9.38 acres would be developed with a senior living facility, which will contain approximately 135 bedrooms for its residents.

The developers also planned to add another 10 acres of land to the 185-acre park, and expand Hickory Hill Trail.

The development proposes to extend Hickory Trail between 1st Avenue to the east, and Scott Boulevard to the north to accommodate the detached single-family housing units and senior living 3 facility. A smaller curved private street, Hickory Commons, is proposed to house the detached condominium dwelling units. The Hickory Trail extension would provide connectivity for pedestrians, linking existing sidewalks along Scott Boulevard and 1st Avenue with trails within Hickory Hill Park.

The package Axiom presented to the city included traffic analysis and a report from the state archeologist’s office, neither of which indicated a problematic impact as a result of the development. PZC member Mark Nolte complimented the design of the homes and buildings as “very sharp.”

City of Iowa City

Opponents of the plan cited three main concerns: that there was not enough of a buffer between the development and the park, which would take away from the park’s character; that an environmental impact study was needed before moving forward; and, most of all, that elements of the proposal did not conform to the city’s Comprehensive Plan and the Northeast District Plan.

“This area was supposed to be low-density,” Bill Synan told PZC members during the meeting’s public comments period. “The Comprehensive Plan has been ignored, ignored and ignored, I’ve seen it for 27 years. And the people now are begging you to do the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

The proposed development included houses on both sides of the streets, with the lots on one side of the streets backing up to the buffer zone with the park. The district plan for the area calls for houses only on one side of the streets. Axiom also proposed building a through street, while the district plan calls for cul-de-sacs when possible. Developers planned to retain 48 percent of the property’s woodlands, but the city standards call for 50 percent retention. In addition, the proposed senior living facility was four stories, while buildings are meant to be limited to three. And although the development is outside park boundaries, it would impact viewsheds in the park.

Hickory Hill Park, Feb. 23, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

“A hundred feet sounds like a lot,” said PZC member Maggie Elliott of the proposed buffer between the development and the park. “But a football field is 300 feet and if you were standing at the midway line and there was a house in the endzone, you would certainly see it. Particularly the higher-ridge area … you are looking up at a long row of houses that are going to be there if this is approved. You can certainly see the houses in Hickory Heights Lane any time of the year if you’re in that area which is the biggest, most wild area of the park. … to have this long row of houses that are backing up to the park — I just don’t think you can say you’re not going to see them.”

Photos of the Axiom project area. — City of Iowa City

Community members on the Zoom call also expressed concerns that the development would be too close for comfort.

“The prairie is my favorite spot to go sit in the summer with the insects, the birds and the flowers,” said Paige Hall, a University of Iowa student. “I already don’t like to go to the [northernmost] prairie that has the giant house from Hickory Heights on it, so now the other big prairie is going to be obstructed by housing. I think it’s very telling that there is still so many people on this call who are opposing the current plan.”

“Only six homeowners will benefit from a double-loaded street,” added local Adam Parker during his time, about the streets with houses on both sides. “It would feel like trespassing on private property to enter the park.”

Hickory Hill prairie area. Feb. 23, 2021. Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Another commenter, Gaylen Wobeter, said standing by the park boundary near the development would “feel like you’re in someone’s backyard.”

Hall, Parker and Wobeter were far from the only locals to express opposition to the Axiom plan. PZC members said they received 85 emails and several phone calls from community members in the days leading up to Thursday’s meeting.

Friends of Hickory Hill Park (FHHP) — a volunteer-run nonprofit founded in 1999 and dedicated to the preservation of the 185-acre, nearly century-old park — used their Facebook page and a flyer campaign in the few freezing days before the PZC meeting to encourage the public to speak out against the Axiom proposal in its current form.

The front of a flyer taped to doors in Iowa City by Friends of Hickory Hill Park. — Matt Steele/Little Village

“FHHP is not opposed to development near the park,” they clarified in a Feb. 13 Facebook post. “We know that Iowa City is a growing area. All kinds of people need homes and folks earn their living from development, finance, and construction. We ARE opposed to development adjacent to the park that does not meet the guidelines established in the Comprehensive Development Plan (+ NE district plan) created by the city, with significant community input, in 2007.”

Many FHHP members spoke out during the public comments period of the Feb. 19 meeting. Several highlighted how special it is to have such a wild and biodiverse refuge as Hickory Hill Park within the city.

“It brings something to Iowa City that’s really rare,” Asha Bhandary said. “It allows us to have that sense of wonder and awe when you encounter the wild — when you encounter a bobcat or some sort of raptor.”

She pointed out that Hickory Hill Park has been a popular destination during the pandemic, and will likely continue to be. “With climate change, we need to be thinking about how to extend our natural spaces,” Bhandary asserted.

“You’re diminishing the value of one of the gems of Iowa City.”

A bumble bee digs into some bee balm at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

One of the most emotional statements of the night came from Arturs Kalnins, who said he’s lived in Iowa City for three-and-a-half years and found himself “amazed at the splendor and beauty” of Hickory Hill Park the first time he visited. “It was a very spiritual moment,” he said, choking up. “Sorry. This park will withstand such a development but it will be degraded. I enter the park three, four, five times a week. It’s a spiritual place where you can enjoy some real tranquility.”

“The developers’ best argument seems to be, ‘Well, we’re not going to degrade it all that much.’ But on the other hand, shouldn’t we demand that something positive be done for the park? This proposal does nothing positive for the park.”

Bhandary and Edie Thomas also noted the “spiritual” aspects of the park. “To disturb that would be a very sad day for this community,” Thomas said.

Thomas urged the PZC to enforce the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Northeast District Plan, asking, “Why have a plan if any developer could easily get waivers for these all the time?”

Others raised concerns about possible negative impacts on wildlife; pesticides potentially leaking downhill from backyards into parks; noise pollution from lawnmowers, snow blowers, delivery trucks and other suburban sounds; and nightmarish traffic situations created by adding a three-way stop on the already-chaotic 1st Avenue.

A running theme from speakers was the fact that it’s much easier to greenlight a development than reverse that development if you don’t like the result.

Rather than send the proposal on to the Iowa City Council for approval, the PZC members voted unanimously against Axiom’s plan, telling them to return with an amended strategy that includes no streets with houses on both sides and a revised road plan.

“We are grateful that the commissioners heard our – and your – concerns and voted down the proposal in its current form,” FHHP said in a celebratory Facebook post. “We recognize that this presents a challenge for the developers and hope we can continue to work with them to find a compromise that will work for all.”

While the PZC ultimately sided with the public consensus, members pointed out that, if the community really wanted to prevent development near Hickory Hill Park, they could have campaigned for the city to purchase the private lands adjacent to the park at any time over the years.

At least some attendees took the message to heart — within hours of the meeting’s end, people in the FHHP Facebook page were already making plans to reach out to ACT and encourage the company to donate their land to the city.

A family walks down a hill near the southeastern boundary of Hickory Hill Park. Feb. 23, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village