Your Town Now: The Year to Come

Photos by Jay Geisen

Saying the face of downtown will change this year is no hyperbole, given the spread of likely-to-be-developed properties. This column will give you the lowdown on some things to expect this year. But first, let’s check in on our old friend John Millar…

Let Us Now Praise Famous Trader Joe’s

In December, John Millar and the rest of his cadre at Divaris released their Downtown Iowa City, Iowa Strategic Assessment. Headlines in the Press-Citizen and Daily Iowan proclaimed the report’s revelation of downtown’s “hidden economies,” which I honestly thought was a reference to drug dealing.

Bruegger's Bagels
Downtown historical buildings are slated for demolition.
What was actually meant by “hidden economies” was the gap between local census income information and actual buying power. Local incomes appear unusually low on the census because many students have no income; however, these students have buying power because of parental allowances. So in fewer words, the city paid Divaris $55,000 to tell us that college kids get money from Mom and Dad. Congratulations, everyone. And because there’s this huge “hidden economy,” Divaris concludes that we actually have a massive unmet demand for more retail space. The study even claims that Coral Ridge Mall is “under-sized for specialty retail” (see the text yourself on the city’s Economic Development department’s website).

The results of their survey are not surprising, given that survey’s specious construction (previously covered in these pages by Bob Burton). Cliff’s Notes: Trader Joe’s is the most demanded chain business, followed by Crate & Barrel. Whatever.

The report also suggests analogous college towns which could provide models for Iowa City’s retail development. One is Boulder, CO, a flawed analogue considering it’s 45 minutes from a major city (Denver). The other is Charlottesville, VA, home of John Millar’s business school alma mater.

In conclusion, it’s important to remember what this document is and is not. It does not carry the writ of law; rather, it only serves to inform local politicians and potential businesspeople on one potential future of downtown Iowa City. A different future is possible and it is up to regular Iowa Citians without franchising opportunities to envision that future. So get to it and good luck.

Developments to Watch

Linn and Bloom St.
More density needed? Jesse Allen hopes to build up, not out, at two contentious downtown locations.

Linn and Bloomington (SW corner)

As of press time, this development is not moving forward. On Oct. 18 the city council voted down an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan which would rezone 221 and 225 N. Linn St. and 223 E. Bloomington St. By keeping the old residential stabilization zoning, this vote effectively stopped the multi-story, mixed-use development proposed by Jesse Allen, 30, of Allen Homes. So the project is in stasis.

At the Oct. 18 meeting, critics articulated fears of a “domino effect” (to use resident Pam Michaud’s words) of denser developments radiating from this property. Councilor Connie Champion cited past examples of “apartment encroachment” into residential Iowa City neighborhoods and said that her voting against the zoning amendment was part of a desire to “save the Northside.” Councilor Regenia Bailey, however, thought the project would provide entrepreneurs more space to locate in the Northside.

As if to assuage fears of the domino effect, on Dec. 15 Planning and Zoning recommended removing the next three Linn Street properties north of Bloomington from the Northside commercial district. The city council has deferred a new vote to rezone the Allen properties until the Jan. 10 meeting. Public comment will be allowed.

Rachael Langin, Katy Meyer and David Burt
Rachael Langin (L), Katy Meyer and David Burt hope The Red Avocado can continue in an updated location.

South Side of 500 Block of Washington Street, between Van Buren and Johnson

The block across from New Pioneer Food Co-Op is also under the eye of Jesse Allen. According to the assessor’s website, Nila Haug owns the three properties at 511, 517 and 521 E. Washington, which house The Red Avocado, Defunct Books and the Golden Haug B&B. These three properties will be fully transferred to Allen after the start of the new year, according to Nila Haug. Haug is optimistic about the development, saying that this is a chance for “young people to do something new in the neighborhood.” David Burt, co-owner of The Red Avocado, has been in communication with Allen about operating the restaurant in the new development. Burt is also optimistic about the future—he has “no plans to close”—but there are few specific details known right now.


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The existing properties are currently zoned CB-2 (central business service zone), which allows 45-foot structures on the property. Plans have yet to be made public, so pay attention to local news and the Board of Adjustments (to whom Allen will need to apply if he wants a residential mixed-use permit) for developments.

Downtown Synagogue
What sort of construction will replace the downtown synagogue?
Soon-to-be-former site of Agudas Achim Synagogue, NE corner of Johnson and Washington

Agudas Achim is moving to Coralville and, in that location, Hunter Companies of Cedar Rapids is seeking to develop a three-story apartment complex. Neighbors have expressed worry about the new development conforming with the aesthetic of the historic neighborhood. Planning and Zoning has yet to vote on recommending rezoning of that land and discussion has been deferred to Jan. 5.

9 S. Linn St.
9 S. Linn St. and its neighboring building, Bruegger's Bagels, were destroyed by one fire on Sept. 24, 2011
Former site of Bruegger’s Bagels and the Van Patten House

Goodbye historic buildings. According to an anonymous source involved in local historic preservation, the shells of both buildings constitute an “emergency situation” (as ruled by the building official) and are to be demolished without review from the Historic Preservation board. I would not be surprised if the structures were both gone by the time you read this.

According to a November Press-Citizen article, Bruegger’s plans to renew operations on that site. That property is owned by “Net Lease Funding 2005 LP,” a company with little paper trail and which apparently is incorporated in Florida. So if you’re a betting type, don’t wager that the site is going to feature a quaint, two-story historic-reproduction brick building. Sorry.

The Van Patten House around the corner (9 S. Linn, the historic brick building north of the Yacht Club) is owned by Kevin Monson, who is involved in the controversial One University Place development in University Heights. While the fire is known to have started in the Bruegger’s kitchen, the exact cause is still undetermined. This has snagged up the development process and no plans have been made public.

In all of the above developments about which details are known, higher density is what’s in store. Higher densities in new buildings could mean more congestion and the demolition of attractive historic properties, or it could mean a larger customer base for downtown businesses and a more lively city. New construction does not need to be synonymous with the forcing-out of local business—the Writer’s Square development, which houses the Motley Cow, RSVP and T-Spoons is a good example. But there are costs and benefits to all of the proposed projects and if you do have a side I encourage you to voice it at the above-listed public meetings. The town is changing—don’t let it go without saying something first.

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