Last November, prior to the election of a slate of candidates who called themselves the “Core Four,” then-Mayor Matt Hayek penned an open letter predicting the consequences of such a win. It would, he wrote, see a “return to the anti-growth, micromanaging City Hall of eras past.” But at the top of 2016, to many in Iowa City, this prediction seems unlikely.
Several members of the much-publicized group have played major roles in city development decisions over the past several years. During their campaigns, they made it a stated goal to rein in contentious tax increment financing (TIF spending) and reinvest in the working class, increase transparency in public policy decisions and perhaps finally address discriminatory housing practices.
But will this major shake-up of the local political establishment actually result in noticeable changes to policy, especially surrounding the controversial long-term development issues set in motion by previous councils?
Chauncey Stays In Limbo
Back in 2013, the Iowa City Council accepted local developer Moen Group’s contentious proposal for a project on the corner of Gilbert and College Streets: the 20-story, $49 million Chauncey Tower.
Jim Throgmorton, later a Core Four candidate, who replaced Hayek as mayor earlier this month, cast the lone dissenting vote. He accused his colleagues of rushing to judgment without listening to public input, and also of disregarding a decision-making matrix the City Council had developed for project selection.
In July 2014, the city gave developers over $14 million in subsidies, $12 million of which came from the TIF program.
Zoning — At the start of 2015, the corner in question wasn’t considered part of Iowa City’s Central Business District, which prevented developers from building structures taller than six stories. To move forward with Chauncey Tower, now scaled to 15 stories, the city needed to rezone the surrounding three block area.
But that February, the Planning and Zoning Commission, on which Core Four council member John Thomas served, failed to approve the first motion to rezone the location, coming to a 3–3 tie.
The decision was then sent to the City Council, which in a vote of 5–2, failed to reach the necessary supermajority. Throgmorton and Botchway, who is now mayor pro tem, were opposed.
In June, after months of failed votes from both bodies, the city’s rezoning request, with minor alterations, was approved by the council after three 4–2 votes. Throgmorton and Botchway again cast the dissenting votes.
Thomas remained opposed to the rezoning plan throughout the process. At a debate prior to the city council election, Thomas called the TIF money granted to the Chauncey developers “a subsidy by all Iowa City taxpayers to among the wealthiest Iowa Citians.”
The ICATS Appeal — The first major legal challenge to Chauncey Tower came from the Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow (ICATS), a band of community members headed by local lawyer, activist and recently-elected Core Four city council member Rockne Cole.
ICATS argued that the enormous structure would dwarf the buildings around it, casting a literal shadow over them. Their attorney, Christopher Warnock, filed a petition in March 2014, in hopes of capping site developments at 75 feet.
That lawsuit was dismissed in April 2015 by Sixth District Judge Paul Miller, who wrote in his decision that ICATS hadn’t shown a legal interest in the site, or expressed interest in purchasing or developing it. Cole maintained this set a precedent allowing only property owners to challenge future zoning applications.
Warnock filed an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court. Arguments will begin this month in Des Moines. If the court rules that the development’s height should have been capped at 75 feet, the issue will be sent back to a council that has been openly skeptical of the tower’s benefits.
As one of the community’s most vocal opponents of the city’s decisions on the Chauncey, Cole said he plans to recuse himself from potential rezoning votes, but will remain involved in the process moving forward. He understands that now, as a council member himself, he has a duty to honor the previous council’s agreements with developers, if the court’s rezoning rulings are upheld.
Trinity Episcopal — One major opponent to the tower is Trinity Episcopal Church, constructed in 1871, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and located directly across Gilbert Street from the proposed building.
A high-density, mixed-used tower would cause a dramatic increase in traffic to the area, and church leadership are concerned that it would cause parking difficulties for members of the congregation. They also echoed concerns raised by ICATS that the 15-story high rise would block out the sun that normally shines through the church’s 145-year-old, east-facing stained glass windows. More than a purely aesthetic concern, it would also interfere with the LEED-certified church’s energy efficiency.
ICATS’ lawyer Warnock, who filed a formal objection to the city’s zoning plans on behalf of the church, wants to make it clear that the church began its protest of the tower to point out the negative effect it could have on the community at large.
“They felt like the community had not been consulted and that this has just been shoved through,” he said. “No one was speaking for the community, and I think they felt like they needed to step forward.”
The city rejected Trinity’s objection after it found that the church only owned seven percent of the property within 200 feet of the building. State law requires that a business own 20 percent to initiate a supermajority rezoning council vote.
Last June, Trinity filed a writ of certiorari to formally challenge the city on that decision. Excluding city property within the 200 feet in question, the church found that it owned enough property to trigger the supermajority vote.
Judge Miller dismissed Trinity’s petition on Oct. 22, ruling that the statute in question didn’t limit calculations of land ownership to privately-owned property.
Warnock appealed that decision on Nov. 18, effectively halting construction of the Chauncey Tower. According to City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes, the appeals process could take up to two years, which would force the Moen Group to push the project’s timeline even farther into the future.
If the court rules in Trinity’s favor, a decision on the initial rezoning request could fall to a council that seems less likely to grant its approval.
“The real wildcard here is the change in the city council,” Warnock said. “For the first time you have four councilmen who are progressive. What we’ve had before was basically, essentially, Republicans masquerading as progressives … [A few developers] have been showered with wealth by the city through multi-million dollar TIFs. The biggest problem with the Chauncey was the huge amount of public funding.”
Control House Turned Park
In summer 2008, Iowa City’s North Wastewater Treatment Plant was inundated by floodwater and sustained heavy water damage. Key electrical systems and pumps at the plant’s historic sewage control house, constructed by the city in 1935 with help from the University of Iowa, were damaged beyond repair. The plant went offline for about two months and, with funding from the Iowa Flood Mitigation Plan, the city made updates to a separate facility.
The North Wastewater Treatment Plant was decommissioned in February 2014.
The City Responds — One year later, in February 2015, city officials announced the next phase of their Riverfront Crossings District revitalization project: The creation of a combination public park and wetland reclamation area. Plans for Riverfront Crossings Park call for a network of hiking and biking trails, gardens and nature observation areas. The area may also include zip-lines, a bouldering course and a “natural playscape” for children.
Standing in the way of the innovative park, however, was the abandoned North Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The State Historical Society’s review of the plant’s 80-year-old control house determined that it did not meet requirements for a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The city had already begun excavation to remove mercury from the flood-ravaged water basins surrounding the control house, and, by spring 2015, the demolition of the rest of the plant was set to begin.
The Ecopolis Alternative — Ecopolis, a group of Iowa City residents who had been meeting since the fall to discuss environmental sustainability issues related to urban planning, were determined to save the control house from demolition.
Headed up by a handful of local activists including Core Four candidate Cole, Ecopolis held a community forum to discuss potential uses for the control house and park.
Rather than demolish the control house along with the rest of the decaying plant, the group wanted to turn it into a public space and “artistic hub.” In addition to providing the general public with a southside meeting space, Ecopolis planned to use the location as its own base of operations But first it would need to come up with funding.
The city estimated it would cost $554,000 to restore the condemned control house to operable condition, not including the funding needed to bolster its flood protection systems and comply with ADA accessibility requirements to meet code for public use.
Ecopolis requested that the City Council amend the Riverfront Crossings District Master Plan to delay the demolition for a few years so they could raise the over half-million dollars necessary to keep their dream of a new community center alive.
Razing and Renewal — Ecopolis held a tongue-in-cheek ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate their upcoming move into the control house, but on March 9, 2014, the City Council voted 6–1 to go ahead with their salvage and demolition plans for the site. The six council members in favor cited fears of future flood damage; lone dissenter Councilor Terry Dickens said he was willing to give the community time to try to raise the funds.
By mid-September, all buildings at the former treatment plant had been razed.
The extensive Riverside Crossings Park project moves ahead as planned, with proposals and bids for construction due this month.
In The Wake Of The Cottages
Until they were demolished last year, to make way for a new mixed-use apartment building, three Civil War-era cottages could be found on the 600 block of South Dubuque Street. Their demolition ignited one of the highest-profile preseravtion cases in recent years.
The cottages had never been granted protected status as historical landmarks, and in mid-November 2014, developers approached the city with plans for their demolition.
By early December, two engineering reports on the cottages had emerged. The first, paid for by the developer, found that the cottages were beyond repair. The second, commissioned using funds raised by Friends of Historic Preservation, suggested restoration.
With contradictory reports in hand, the City Council held a special 7 a.m. meeting and decided against holding a public forum on the cottages, instead issuing demolition permits.
In the following weeks, the Iowa City Historical Preservation Commission, as well as the Planning and Zoning Commission, granted the cottages historic landmark status. On Dec. 24, Iowa’s State Historic Preservation Office recognized them as historically significant.
On Christmas night, barely 24 hours after the Preservation Office’s designation, developers levelled the first of the three cottages. Friends of Historic Preservation filed an application to protect the remaining cottages. It was denied by the City Council.
Councilor Cole provided legal representation to two of the three small business owners renting cottages before their demolition.
“We had a lot of support from the historic preservation community,” Cole said. “Ultimately the council overruled that, and that’s when it came to me that you can have effective advocacy, but if you don’t have four votes, it just isn’t particularly helpful. That was, in a sense, one of the reasons I wanted to make sure that we ran. So that we’d be able to have that voice.”
What Could Change In 2016?
If the new council members make good on their most vehement campaign promises, the atmosphere in Iowa City will likely become less developer-friendly and more community driven.
The case of the Dubuque Street Cottages, for instance, could have played out differently with the current council in place. The overwhelming support from state historical groups late in the process might have actually given these council members pause, instead of leading to a vote to grant the permits that allowed developers to demolish them under the cover of darkness on Christmas night, 2014.
The Core Four might have objected to the Chauncey Tower plan’s less-than-transparent selection process and undertaken the resulting rezoning proceedings differently. But hindsight is 20/20.
The upcoming Riverfront Crossings Park proposal selection process may offer Iowa City its first chance to see what kind of council it has elected. Ecopolis didn’t succeed in saving the plant, but proponents of the group, as well as local preservationists like Cole, now get to play an integral role in the future use of the land. Looking forward, they will also be able to shape the future of the city’s remaining historic buildings.
“I’m not against all modern architecture,” Cole said. “I do think, though, that in certain parts of the community––downtown, North Market Square––that we need to have contextual development with similar forms adjacent to historic properties … Growth, as I’ve always seen it and I see it now, is not a question of whether we grow, but the proper density and scale that we need to grow at so we get the growth right.”
At the start of 2015, the demolition of the Dubuque Street Cottages was almost a foregone conclusion, and an eco-district on Iowa City’s south side seemed like a pipedream. Only time will tell, but given the campaign rhetoric from our newly-elected local leaders — and activists like Cole in their midst––this year has the potential to be different.
Call it micromanaging, as former Mayor Hayek did in his letter last fall, but listening to––and taking seriously––the concerns levied by members of the community about the sweeping changes taking place around them could prove to be a pretty good idea.
John Miller graduated from the University of Iowa in 2013. He writes freelance news for Little V, checks in your library books and has probably delivered food to your house. In his spare time, he’s an avid job hunter. JohnMiller790@gmail.com. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 191.