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Your Town Now: The Month that was February 2011


“Mural”

Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” was up for sale, then it wasn’t. This was an interesting cause for Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Scott Raecker, but we’ve got a theory about why he felt compelled to pick this particular fight.

The top donor to Raecker’s electoral campaigns is the Associated General Contractors of Iowa. The fourth-largest is the Master Builders of Iowa. Pollock knocked down a wall in his apartment to accommodate the canvas on which “Mural” was painted. Without employing a licensed, bonded, union-trained carpenter.

This was payback. Or maybe just a bad idea.

Donation Stations

Since summer, panhandlers needn’t go to the trouble of speaking with visitors to the Ped Mall. Instead, they’ve been anxiously waiting the first biannual distribution of funds from the cheery purple parking meters installed this summer. And what a score! The Free Medical Clinic, Johnson County Crisis Center, and Free Lunch Program each received $260, with the possibility of slightly more or less in a year.

Those are all great organizations and each of them can do wonders with a couple of bucks. We just wonder why the donation stations were ever presented as alternatives to the traditional means of change distribution. A good idea’s a good idea and we, in the People’s Republic of Johnson County, have kicked in to the meters at a 33 percent greater clip per-capita than folks in Denver, whose donation stations inspired ours. But they’re not convincing anodynes to the misgivings some of us had about the panhandling ordinance’s First Amendment implications. Positing the purple parking meters as a complete alternative to panhandling carries with it more than a whiff of not-in-my-back yard. And the Ped Mall is our backyard.

Downtown

Problem is, backyards aren’t often thriving commercial zones. Our downtown has taken hits from the Old Capitol Mall, the Coralville strip and Coral Ridge Mall, and it has countered by…well, mostly by spawning new bars. Thanks to the 21-ordinance and increasing attention to good-character guidelines for owners, a liquor license isn’t a license to print money in our town these days. Downtown’s going to change and somewhat soon, and no one knows exactly how.

But we can start reading the tea leaves. On February 16, developer John Millar delivered a presentation in the Old Capitol Center on “The Hidden Economies in College Towns.” Invited by a group of business owners, local developers, City Council and University of Iowa officials, Millar challenged his audience to think of ways that downtown Iowa City can attract retail business on a larger scale than it has in the past. Millar cut his teeth developing mixed-use shopping malls that incorporate office and residential spaces. His college town projects have run to creating “town centers” away from downtown. Promotional materials for an effort on the outskirts of State College, PA, claim it to be “the heart of a 1,250-acre planned community, with upscale, lifestyle retail shops and restaurants, high-end condominiums, town homes, and ‘game day’ condos for visitors, alumni and residents.”

City Manager Tom Markus may have been listening intently to Millar. Markus has some ideas about replacing “big-box bars” (his apt phrase) with larger retail stores than our downtown has been able or willing to attract. Think Anthropologie. Markus favors a more deliberate, more intentionally planned approach than Iowa City has traditionally taken to business development and, while he’s said all the right things about listening to the community, you can bet that when he sees a need for developing downtown’s business environment he’s going to come up with a comprehensive plan for doing so.

Makeover

Downtown Iowa City can be developed up (by tearing down buildings and replacing them with more 14-story towers) or out (by expanding the boundaries of what we consider “downtown.”) Capital improvements to the Northside Marketplace are underway, but plopping large retail outlets into that neighborhood would damage its charm and threaten the character of the nearby residential area. East of downtown lies another important residential zone and west lies the university. Which leaves south.

The area extending directly south of Burlington Street from downtown is officially called the Near Southside, an ambitious new plan calls it Riverfront Crossing and, for decades, business owners in the area have referred to it as SoBur. Whatever you call it, it’s a patchily developed region and it’s where the retail-development and alumni-condo crowd is likely to look.

A proposal to reshape this area was approved in 1995, but the plan was never fully carried out. The Riverfront Crossings project imagines plenty of green space and floodwater-absorbing wetlands, a host of new mixed-use residential/office/retail buildings and lots of parking for all those folks living twelve stories up in steel and glass.

Some folks in town notably relish the idea of living twelve stories up in steel and glass. Others of us can’t quite warm to the notion, not in Iowa City. One thing’s for sure: Our downtown and surrounding areas are in for major changes and soon. Now’s the time to speak up, to speak loudly and to keep at it.

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