Your Town Now: Slouching Towards Downtown

Your Town Now
In defense of funky: Nialle Sylvan entertains patrons at The Haunted Bookshop. Photo by Derek Laughlin

Carpetbaggers to Iowa City have had a bit of fun with us lately after skulking away to Michigan. Stephen Bloom, who embarrassed himself in The Atlantic’s formerly admirable online presence, and Nila Haug, who sources tell me was something of a grumpy slumlord, each left our fair city with a steaming pile of thanks on the doorstep after heading off to the land of malaria, blight and the Nuge.

Confidential to Bloom: We don’t mind Iowa jokes—Raygun’s even made money on them. We don’t, however, like bad work.

Almost everyone who fought the 2005 call for a lower density designation has since sold their land to developers.

Like Bloom, Haug also lived here for 20 years, in her case following a move from South Bend, Ind. Indiana must’ve been good to her—she bought a few rental properties upon arrival before starting the Golden Haug on Washington Street—but Iowa City was better: Haug and hubby Denny Nowotny owned much of the 500 block of Washington by the time they sold out to a developer and ducked off to Michigan late last year. The developer plans to demolish the existing structures and build a mixed residential/commercial space. According to a Jan. 5 Press-Citizen article, Haug “didn’t know about the plans for the new building at the time, but said she’s excited about the proposed development, which she said she thinks will revitalize the neighborhood.”

When you own most of the property in a neighborhood and leave it in need of revitalization, that’s evidence enough of bad stewardship. When you sell that property without any idea as to what will be done with it, and endorse its new owner’s plans for it in retrospect, that’s just shittiness.

Much of which was in evidence during a 2005 zoning commission meeting devoted to the status of several blocks, including Haug’s. The commission was to decide whether to rezone the parallel 500 blocks of College and Washington Streets as “MU,” or lower-density mixed-use (which would diminish the extent to which commercial value was placed on property assessments, and therefore threaten to diminish property values), or to retain it as CB2 (mixed-use with allowances for larger structures). Haug spoke in favor of retaining the contemporary designation because a change might lower her property’s value if she wanted to sell it. Nowotny offered a bizarre ramble to the same effect. Even the executive director of Community Mental Health Center for Mid-Eastern Iowa promoted, however faux-apologetically, the same line.

The only resident who spoke in favor of the lower-density designation just happened to be the only one who held no commercial interest in the neighborhood; she spoke movingly of the benefits of fostering cottage industries in a neighborhood that represented a transition between downtown and the residential areas to the east. And was ignored. Everyone else who spoke at the meeting, aside from the CMHC director, has since sold their properties to developers.

Among the displaced following Haug’s sale, you might have heard, is The Red Avocado, founded in 1999. Among the concerned citizens who spoke up at the 2005 zoning commission meeting was no one representing The Red Avocado, whose owners have sighed along with those protesting the building’s demolition, but haven’t said much regarding the restaurant’s future.

Businesses lose their leases all the time, but it doesn’t mean they have to stop serving their customers. They can take their brand into grocery stores and when opportunity knocks, they can relocate and make a go of it once again. Take the case of the brothers who own the newly opened Giardiniera on S. Gilbert. They’re the same gang who owned Terrapin Coffee in Coralville before the flood took them out. Their business was barely accessible to customer traffic and was bracketed by dry ground, on which two coffee shops were doing all right. So they sold the shop but retained the name, focusing for a while on distribution rather than retail. A few years later, they’re back, this time as the owners of the most painstakingly epicurean Chicago sandwich joint I’ve ever enjoyed.

The Red Avocado occupied a terrific location and a warm spot in the hearts of some Iowa Citians. If its owners are interested in continuing their service to the community and honing their craft at a new location, that’s great. But sanctimony isn’t a saleable commodity, even in Iowa City, and it’s not a solid foundation on which to mount a pushback against our town’s increasing suburbanization.

Speaking of Pushback

It was a busy stretch for The Haunted Bookshop’s Nialle Sylvan, who organized a petition to save The Red Avocado’s current location. She also spearheaded a recent effort to keep Jesse Allen—whose Allen Homes bought much of the 500 block of Washington from Nila Haug—from building a mixed-use commercial/apartment building near her store on the Northside. Good on her for asserting her right as a neighborhood stalwart to influence the nature of future development there. And good on Allen for stepping back when the neighborhood raised its voice.

DTA is Dead, Long live the SSMID?

Back to Washington Street. After the 2005 meeting when the city declined to rezone the neighborhood, it remained officially a part of downtown, which might invite its future commercial tenants to join the Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District, or SSMID, recently approved by the city council.

The SSMID will assess a 5% surtax on all downtown commercial property and use the proceeds to hire and support a downtown business development manager. Though it’s been in the works for a year, two things already threaten the SSMID’s fortunes.

On the legal front, property tax reform could smack the SSMID. The SSMID’s leadership figured that a 5% surtax would be enough to generate nearly $300,000 for its budget. Terry Branstad’s recently announced property-tax reform initiative could trim more than $120,000 from that total, leaving the SSMID to scramble for a Plan B.

Internally, there’s dissension in the ranks. The SSMID barely made it this far: a petition to kill the idea earned the signatures of 24.5% of downtown business owners representing 19.5% of downtown commercial property values; at 25% and 20%, respectively, it would have succeeded.

The organization’s board originally declined to include a single bar owner. A late decision to add two seats for liquor-license holders didn’t do much to smooth things over—Short’s and Stella Co-owner Kevin Perez announced plans in the Jan. 10 Press-Citizen to form his own group representing bars and restaurants. Two more seats would bring the board up to 26 members, seven more than the 19 authorized by the city.

Downtown Iowa City’s commercial fortunes changed when Coralville erupted. It’s worth remembering that Coralville once tried to compete with Iowa City on I.C.’s terms. But “Just Can’t Hide That Coralville Pride” has given way to “Fuck You, We’ve Got a Mall and We’re Taking Your Stores.” For which Iowa City hasn’t had a ready answer. It’s up to the SSMIDites to come up with a similarly compelling unanswerable, or all the special taxes and fancy plans in the world won’t save downtown.