Photos by Derek Laughlin
For the last month or so, the talk of the town has moved on from Stephen Bloom to Washington Street. By the time you read this, the houses in the 500 block of Washington Street that housed The Red Avocado restaurant, Defunct Books, and the Golden Haug Bed and Breakfast may very well be dust. Yet another multi-story apartment building with ground-floor retail space will soon arise. At deadline, Defunct Books announced they were moving to Sycamore Mall. The fate of the Red Avocado is still highly questionable.
From a personal perspective, I grieve what has been lost: 1) Old, attractive houses (technically “historic” or not being beside the point) that provide visual and aesthetic variety and an appropriate scale to the neighborhood; once these are gone, they can never be replaced. And 2) unique, locally-owned businesses offering products and services that contribute significantly to the special character of Iowa City; similar businesses will likely not occupy the new building. Iowa City staked at least some of its reputation as a UNESCO City of Literature on its wonderful bookstores. One of those is now gone from the downtown area. Our community is arguably “ground zero” for local, organic foods in the state of Iowa and even the Midwest. One of the major contributors to that status may never open again, anywhere.
Rising out of the discussion is a sense among many Iowa Citians that this kind of development is going too far. There are also many voices on the other side of the debate, including the former owner of the Washington Street properties, asserting that this is the kind of development that Iowa City needs. I am of the former camp.
Washington Street should be a wake-up call about the fragility of the near-downtown area. Many old houses and small local businesses could be only a 30-day eviction notice away from the bulldozer. Consider just a few properties near the 500 block of Washington Street: the old house behind the New Pioneer Co-op on Van Buren Street that houses counseling services, the several houses just around the corner on Iowa Avenue and the two old houses just west of there on Iowa Avenue, one of which houses United Action for Youth. I have no knowledge of the current ownership or status of these buildings, but they are zoned CB5, which is Central Business Support Zone. This is a similar type of commercial zone to the CB2 zoning of 521 E. Washington, which housed The Red Avocado and Defunct Books. And what else is in the immediate vicinity, no doubt atop the ghosts of old houses that used to stand there? At the intersection of Iowa Avenue and Van Buren Street are the Credit Union building and an office/apartment building, neither of which are winning any architectural or historical preservation awards and, last time I looked, do not appear in brochures that tout the charm of our community.
The College Green area to the east of Red Avocado/Defunct Books is more mixed-used in its zoning and does enjoy some historic, neighborhood stabilization and conservation district protections. However, as the current controversy over the proposed apartment building development on the former Agudas Achim synagogue site illustrates, zoning changes often seem to be easier than some would think, and the “protections” of special districts only hold so much teeth.
Some of Iowa City’s zoning posits values such as “pedestrian orientation,” “livable neighborhoods,” and “safeguard[ing] the City’s architectural, historic and cultural heritage by preserving historic buildings and neighborhoods.” And I am grateful for the city’s efforts with such programs as the UniverCity Partnership, that helps convert former rental properties back to single-owner homes, and the conscious, and hopefully mindful, redevelopment of the Riverfront Crossings district. At the same time, Washington Street-like situations continue to arise, “student warehouse” apartment buildings continue to proliferate and the city throws up its hands and says, “We can’t do anything because it meets the zoning. And besides, it increases the tax base.” Ultimately, the money that developers wield will always be a very powerful weapon that can easily trump the intangibles of community character, historic sensibility and the intrinsic value of small local businesses.
Some might say, a building here, a building there, what’s the difference? But do a mental inventory. Off the top of my head, I can list the loss in recent years of Eastlawn, the original Cottage cottage, and an older commercial building for the Tower Place parking ramp; the old house (one of the oldest in Iowa City) behind the Burlington and Gilbert Kum & Go for a Papa John’s Pizza/apartment building; the Vogel house for the Vogel House apartment building; and of course the recent fire loss of the Bruegger’s building and the Van Patten House. Go back further and remember—or look up—what formerly stood where the monstrous Old Capitol Mall brown brick box sits, where the US Bank parking lot provides not even a shadow of the old City Hall, where the blank Plaza Center One stands stonily silent instead of the truly odd Odd Fellows Hall, where the unfortunate Sheraton building wasn’t even able to afford its planned brick façade. It’s hard to argue with a fire, and arguments abound that some of the old buildings we’ve razed were beyond repair. Still, add the historical heritage, character and architectural variety we’ve lost in recent years to what’s been lost in decades past, and we’re getting closer to a civic heritage death by a thousand cuts than one might think.
It seems we’re becoming aware of how truly fragile the character of the near-downtown area is. So what do we do about it? As many have said lately, raising our voices towards the city to address and strengthen zoning is very important. But ultimately, whatever conversation—or conflict—that we have will be about values, and those can be even more difficult issues to resolve. Even above and beyond the values struggle between modernization and historic preservation, between maximizing public revenue/private profit and maximizing community character, and between expansion and preserving smaller scale, the values that overlay everything are the values of community—who and what we are to be as a people and what we decide to share in common. And that’s what I’ll pick up on next month.