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Your Town Now: The Month that was March 2011



Is This Heaven…?

In a memo to the Iowa City Council, Police Chief Sam Hargadine and Transportation Planner John Yapp laid out the case for traffic-enforcement cameras in Iowa City. The memo addresses fairly standard stuff–a demonstration that cameras have suppressed accidents in other cities, a list of other Iowa towns that have implemented traffic cameras–and was intended as a conversation-starter toward enactment of changes to the local code necessary for cameras to be installed.

Of note, though, is the memo’s concession that cameras have been criticized in other towns as overly opportunistic moneymakers. Hargadine and Yapp are careful to note that revenues from traffic cameras will be applied to such local phenomena as “meth lab clean-ups…Presidential visits [and] natural disasters.” What state are we in again? Oh, yeah….

TIF My SSMID

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett and Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chair Pat Harney signed off on a letter to Iowa Department of Transportation Director Nancy Richardson pledging their financial support for a commuter line running between Iowa City and Chicago. Governor Terry Branstad recently required communities to defer some of the project’s ongoing operating costs and, without putting any numbers to the offer, our fair leaders have committed to raising funds “through methods such as the use of a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district surrounding the depot location”.

We’re hearing a lot about TIFs lately. So far, some prominent voices have mentioned using TIFs for downtown enhancements, for the Chicago-to-Iowa-City line and for development south of Burlington Street (SoBur). We’re also hearing talk of Self-Supported Municipal Improvement Districts (SSMIDs), which seek to raise taxes in specific neighborhoods and spend the proceeds locally. It’s an exciting time to be alive, all right. But let’s all take a deep breath and remember what TIFs have done for the economies of California, where they originated, and Illinois, the state in which they’re perhaps most widely used.

The Thing That Ate Johnson County

The Council voted to annex 12.65 acres north of Mormon Trek road, near the Iowa City Municipal Airport. As part of the annexation, the land will be rezoned from “county agricultural” to something called “intensive commercial,” at the request of developer ILJ Investments. In a possible tip of ILJ’s hand, the Planning and Zoning Commission’s description of ILJ’s application mentions “intensive commercial uses such as auto sales and repair.”

Interesting thing about this application, though: the parcels of land located just to the north and south of the one in question are zoned for residential and agricultural purposes and the parcel to the west, while recently rezoned for industrial uses, carries with it an agreement that it will provide an appropriate transition from commercial use to the residential character of its neighbors. An auto dealership, with its perpetual noon lighting, might not provide much of a transition.

Jane Driscoll, whose grandfather owns some of the adjoining residential land and who has dedicated his acreage to be used as a public park when the time comes around, has made her voice heard on the matter. If you’ve got an opinion, there’ll be a public hearing on April 5, at City Hall.

Moneybags Markus

City Manager Tom Markus now has the authority directly to make grants of up to $50,000 from the city’s Economic Development Opportunity fund, without consulting the Economic Development Committee. The new authority is intended to allow Markus to quickly reach out to companies wishing to set up shop in Iowa City; disbursements must still be recorded with the committee (which consists of council members Regenia Bailey, Matt Hayek and Susan Mims) and must follow its established goals and strategies.

I’ll Take “What I Want to Hear” for $103,842, Alex

Regular readers of this column, along with you jerks who’ve never laid eyes on it, know that big changes are coming downtown. Well, the city’s arranged for a facelift, too: the council recently agreed to pay RDG Planning & Design $103,842 for a “comprehensive needs study” and development of a master plan for the city’s municipal facilities. RDG recently contributed to the Towncrest Urban Renewal plan. Dollars to donuts a big part of the master plan will involve relocating the wastewater treatment plant at Kirkwood and Clinton. Development south of Burlington–including downtown expansion and the Riverfront Crossings project–needs the space.

SoBur and RivCo

Between downtown and Riverfront Crossings lies SoBur, the area south of Burlington Street that’s being eyed as the only reasonable spot for downtown expansion. Along with the odd empty lot and a handful of fast-food joints in SoBur and RivCo, the area is home to a smattering of local businesses, including an array of small-but-important light-industry concerns. This column’s not an ad, but plenty of people in town head to SoBur when their cars have trouble and plenty of those people go back after their first experience.

For all of the big talk and soothing artist’s renderings already thrown into the conversation over SoBur, not much of the public conversation has had to do with the debilitating effects of displacing an assortment of businesses that represent a vital, if not exactly chi-chi, sector of our local economy. Eggs and omelets, I know. But the conversation’s got to involve some serious ways in which we can make changes to SoBur work for the folks who, you know, work there already…and for those of us who are glad that they do.

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