Project at 12 Court Street: Scale It Down and Build It Incrementally over Time

[Note: At its work session on November 6, 2018, Iowa City’s City Council had a lengthy discussion about possible height bonuses for the project proposed for 12 Court Street in Iowa City. I wrote a memo to the Council concerning the outcome of that discussion. That memo, which is public information, appears below. A related post on this Storytelling and Cities site can be found at: https://persuasivestorytelling.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=985&action=edit%5D

On November 6, we discussed possible height bonuses for “Pentacrest Gardens” at 12 Court St.[1] Danielle Sitzman provided us with an overview of the Riverfront Crossings District Master Plan; the Form Based Code; the development process and possible height bonuses; and how the Plan, the FBC, and possible height bonuses apply to the 12 Court St. site.[2] I want to thank Danielle for making such an excellent presentation.

Although no official votes were taken, a majority (4) of us informally indicated a willingness to permit the developer to receive the maximum height bonus permitted in the South Downtown Sub-District: 7 stories for each of the buildings (presumably four) at the site. And we instructed the staff to inform the 12 Court Street development team to prepare a draft height bonus proposal for Council to discuss at an upcoming work session.

In principle, I think the 8 stories permitted pursuant to the upzoning we approved a few weeks ago are appropriate in scale and sufficient in density. However, as I said during our November 6 meeting and as I indicated during our earlier discussions about rezoning the site, I also think there are good reasons to authorize bonuses resulting in an average maximum building height of 11-12 stories.[3]

Although I think some bonuses are warranted, I strongly believe that permitting the maximum permissible bonus is a serious mistake; it would result in a project that is excessive in scale and unnecessarily risky for both the developer and the city.  In my judgment, the development needs to be scaled down and stretched out over time.

First, with maximum bonuses, the project will far exceed what the Master Plan – which was developed with extensive public participation and support – anticipated for the site. That Plan envisioned four buildings, which would be 4-7 stories in height plus a possible height bonus. However, the developer envisions – and the Council has tentatively authorized – a complex consisting of four 15-story structures. Such a complex would be far out of scale with virtually all the other buildings in and near downtown and would, therefore, radically alter the character and identity of the city. The resulting transformation would be irreversible; the buildings would last for decades to come, whether they succeed or fail. Moreover, construction of this project might also divert investment away from other parts of the Riverfront Crossings District and thereby undermine our ambitions for that area.

Second, we have already approved a massive upzoning, which permits the owner to (at least) quintuple the number of beds on the site from 200 to (at least) roughly 1,000. We did so by rezoning the site, which authorized the developer to build several structures up to 8 stories in height and the staff to increase that by two bonus stories subject to review by the Design Review Committee.

The 12 Court Street site is a very good location for student-oriented housing, but, if it accommodates 1,000 or more students, we should carefully consider the project’s potential effects on the off-campus student housing market. In my judgment, it would be unwise to enable one developer to control too large a share of off-campus student housing. It would also be unwise to permit the supply of off-campus student housing to increase so much and so quickly that it undermines the viability of apartment complexes that currently serve the student market.[4]

Third, there is no need to overreach: upzoning coupled with modest bonuses would still yield very large increases in the tax base and property tax revenues. Increasing the tax base is not one of the elements listed in the FBC as warranting height bonuses, but it clearly has been a relevant factor in the Council’s decision making. By rezoning the property, we already enabled the owner to, by right, increase the number of beds and property tax revenue on the site roughly 5-fold. If we authorized height bonuses resulting in an average height of 12 stories as advocated in my June 28 memo, we would be enabling the City’s property tax revenues to increase by ~$1.28 million per year.[5]

Fourth, an increase in site-specific property tax revenues might be substantially offset by decreases elsewhere. In other words, we need to think about the net change in property tax revenues rather than base our decision entirely on gross property revenue generated by development on this site. On this point, I ask you to consider three factors:

  1. Rental housing vacancy rates have been increasing significantly. As part of an unrelated rezoning, we received a market assessment which reported that rental vacancy rates had increased to 4.4% in 2017 and was expected to increase to 7% by 2019 as a result of imminent completion of several new multifamily development projects. (It is not clear to me whether the 7% projection included 12 Court Street’s 2,000 beds.)
  2. Increased vacancy rates might result in property devaluations and hence decreases in property tax revenue from other rental housing complexes. Shortly before we rezoned the property, I had a lengthy discussion with the owner of several apartment complexes. He expressed considerable concern about the recent and projected increase in rental housing vacancy rates and drew my attention to negative effects this is likely to have on the assessed value of his properties and others like his. These concerns were also expressed to us in a letter we received from Larry Svoboda, the owner of Campus View Apartments. Svoboda claimed the number of incoming U of I students is declining, the number of vacant apartments is growing by leaps and bounds, vacancies will rise to critical levels, “rate wars” for survival will start, the big companies will take their profits and run, building values will decline, and some owners will simply walk away from their buildings.
  3. The 15-story scenario might be very risky for the developer. An August 14 Bloomberg News article titled, “How long will student housing be big business?”, Noah Buhayar, Kristi Westgard, and Gillian Tan basically argued that investors in big new student-oriented housing projects face many risks.[6] If investors in such projects face many risks, then so too would Iowa City.

Fifth, key risks for the developer and for the city are the possibility of (1) declining enrollments at the University and/or (2) a U of I policy decision to require 2nd year students to live on campus. University officials have told us the U of I does not intend to increase enrollment and that the current enrollment of 32,000 is generally felt to be the right size for the University. They also reminded us they are currently studying options to require first and second year students to live on campus, based on institutional objectives of student retention and success. If pursued, this policy shift would undoubtedly impact local apartment capacities and rents. Beginning in 2019, the University will conduct a small program that tests this live-on requirement within one of their existing residence halls. Moreover, after we rezoned the property, the University reported that its enrollment had dropped by about 550 students this year as compared with last and that its Mayflower Residence Hall was only about 60% occupied.

Sixth, the upzoning we already approved will, when coupled with modest height bonuses, substantially increase the supply of affordable housing. City Code requires residential and mixed-use developments in the Riverfront Crossings District to include affordable housing, and no bonus is required to provide a further incentive. If one assumes an overall height bonus equivalent to an average height of 12 stories, the developer would have to contribute roughly 80 affordable units (160 beds) either on site or by paying a fee-in-lieu contribution. According to [City Manager] Geoff [Fruin]’s June 28 memo, the equivalent fee-in-lieu contribution would be $6,469,600 (as compared with $8,087,000 for the 15-story scenario). On this point, I agree with [Council member] Mazahir [Salih] that most of the affordable housing requirement should be met through a fee-in-lieu contribution.

In brief, there are non-trivial uncertainties and risks associated with building new large-scale student housing on this site. In light of those risks and uncertainties, I strongly believe we should scale down the project and ensure that it is phased in over time rather than built quickly as a complex consisting of four 15-story buildings.

Such a scaled-down project would be more consistent with the Riverfront Crossings District’s Master Plan, would provide high quality off-campus student housing close to the University, would yield very large increases in net property tax revenue to the city, would generate over $6 million for our Affordable Housing Fund, and would achieve high quality urban design that enhances the quality and character of the neighborhood.

[1] A video of this work session can be viewed at: https://citychannel4.com/watch-online.html

[2] See the Council’s November 8, 2018, information packet, which is available at: https://iowacity.novusagenda.com/AgendaPublic/MeetingsResponsive.aspx

[3] See my June 28, 2018, memo to the Council (attached). These bonuses would be based on: (1) dedication of the Capitol Street right-of-way to the City, (2) a transfer of density from the Tate Arms historic landmark site, and (3) assurance that the management and interior design of the building would help students mature safely and thrive academically. For details about the U of I’s design requirements for its newest residence halls, see the June 2 email from David Kieff to Geoff and me.

[4] In his July 31 memo to us, Geoff reported: “The combined owners of the proposed development have interest in and management of well over 1000 units and 3000 bedrooms in the Iowa City area. They manage an extremely large share of apartments in Iowa City with the majority of them rented to college students”. By adding 2,000 beds from this proposed development, the developer’s family would own at least roughly 25% of off-campus student housing.

[5] In his June 28 memo to us, Geoff reported, “Based on conversations with the City Assessor and using an estimated unit count of 1000 [i.e., ~2000 beds], we estimate the tax generation to be around $3.9 million for all taxing districts. Of the $3.9 million approximately $1.6 million would be generated for the City of Iowa City annually. The 2016 total taxes for the property were $250,921.”

[6] See: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-14/how-long-will-student-housing-be-big-business

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Building a Beloved Community

[Note: This is the text of a speech I made in Iowa City, Iowa, during a Civil Rights Banquet on April 19, 2018. At the start of the speech, I refer to a tour of important Civil Rights sites and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). A post about that tour can be found on this Storytelling and Cities site at: https://persuasivestorytelling.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=989&action=edit]

In two months, we will climb aboard buses and head south on FasTrac’s 10th tour of HBCUs and important sites in the history of the Civil Rights movement.

As Henri [Harper, organizer of the Civil Rights Tour] knows well, history is not something that is over and done with. It lives in our hearts and minds and bodies, whether we are aware of it or not.

One need only to recall white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators attacking counter-protestors in Charlottesville, VA, last September. Or the moment 3 years ago when a young white supremacist slaughtered 9 black parishioners in Charleston, S.C.’s historic Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church.

So, we won’t simply be visiting sites that were important in the past. We’ll be reflecting on the present and imagining how we can build a better future.

In the few minutes I have, I want to connect our trip to history, genealogy, and identity.

History and genealogy are two radically different ways of thinking about the past. The first says, “This matters!” The second says, “This matters to me!” And if something “matters to me,” it helps shape my sense of identity; that is, it helps answer the question, “Who am I?” That, in turn, leads to the question, “Who are we?”

Let me start with history. It is one of my passions, and I’ve had the opportunity to read a great deal of European and American history, and, more recently, history of the Middle East.

It’s taken me some time, but I now realize that, up to now, I have learned little about the history of Africa. Why might that be?

Happily, I’ve had a chance to learn from historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., especially from his 6-hour series on Public TV titled “Africa’s Great Civilizations.” I don’t know whether you’ve had a chance to see it, but I can tell you the parts I’ve seen really opened my eyes.

The series as a whole portrays 200,000 years of Africa’s history and touches on subjects from the arts to writing and from the dawn of civilization to the 21st century.

The first episode focuses on the origins of the human species and early human society in Africa. Through anthropological and scientific discoveries, viewers like me learn that Africa is the genetic home of all currently living humanity. Only between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago did some of humanity’s common ancestors leave the African continent to spread across the rest of the world.

The second episode charts the rise and impact of Christianity and Islam across the continent, whereas the third uncovers complex trade networks and educational institutions in north and west Africa.

The fourth episode explores the great wealth and industry of African cities. In it, viewers learn that, from 1000 to 1600, a golden age evolved in the expansion of commerce, wealth and prosperity across Africa, and, along with this, the building of new cities and the founding of new powerful states.

I wish I could show you a short clip from this fourth episode: http://www.pbs.org/video/africas-great-civilizations-city-meroe-africas-great-civilizations/. I think you might see a hint of the Afro-Futurist film “Black Panther” in it. You know the tale: T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.

The fifth episode explores the impact of the Atlantic world and the transatlantic slave trade, and the series closes with an episode that traces the dynamism of 19th century Africa and the colonialist scramble for its riches.

I also love Gates’s PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” and the way in which he helps his famous black, Jewish, Asian, and white European-descended guests learn how complicated their races, identities, and heritages really are.

“Every family has family stories,” Gates says when introducing the series. As he unfolds what he’s learned about his guests’ heritage, they always respond with surprise and say things like: “I did not know that!” and “You’re kidding. Oh, my god.” “That’s huge,” one TV star says, “Someone like me making their way in the world 300 years ago. I’m feeling history in a way I’ve never never ever had begun to think about.” “I’m black!” Ava Duvernay cries out. “Too much has been hidden and stolen,” she adds, “so to have that given back to me today is a blessing.”

I’m also reminded of Patricia Williams, a Columbia University Law Professor and proponent of Critical Race Theory. In a recent essay in The Nation, Williams recounts a story about finding a trove of boxes stashed away in her parents’ attic.

The archive of her family photos, letters, and scrapbooks extends back almost 150 years. Two of the most precious things she found were photos of her paternal great-grandfather and her maternal great-grandmother, both born into slavery.

“I am fortunate enough to have grown up with lots of stories passed down about both of them,” she writes, “but I had never seen either of their faces before.”

For Williams, the sudden apparition of their oddly familiar features seemed so jolting, so magical, that she often felt as though she was hallucinating. “It is almost as if their images had coiled upward from the scrapbook, like smoke, and entered my body,” she wrote.

This family archive made Williams feel porous, unsettled in the coherence of an identity she had thought of as her own.

Williams’ intimate encounter with images of her family’s past overlapped with a visit she made to a museum exhibit featuring 150 black dolls handmade by African-American women, most of them enslaved, and intended as toys for both their black and white charges.

The dolls were fashioned from whatever materials lay at hand—scraps of sackcloth, gingham and silk, bits of leather and wool, coconut shell, hardwood, seeds and beads—but it was the scripture of their faces that she found most arresting.

Their wordless witness led Williams into a kind of guessing game about who their makers were and for whom they were intended.

When meditating on the photos in relation to the dolls, Williams found herself in “a field of unconfined mythmaking.”

“Thinking mythologically is comforting,” she wrote, for it “invites a sense of belonging to a grand narrative or idealized creation story.” It enables individuals to connect the generationally disconnected, and provide “a sense of continuity from the past to the present, and then on to a promised—or even destined—future.”

“At the same time,” she continues, “the yearning for creation stories can be born of discontent, displacement, and despair.” “Mythmaking,” she adds, “can sometimes risk generating…nostalgia for times-that-never-were and for the purities of blood-and-soil belonging.”

Williams claims “the tension between these two visions—utopia and the exile therefrom—are on full display in the furious online debates about cinematic representations of home, loss, and heroism in Black Panther.”

Indeed, for her, “the central challenge of Afrofuturism, the sci-fi/fantasy genre of which Black Panther is a prime example, is how best to imagine a future in which children of the African diaspora survive, make the temporal crossing safely, and endure.”

Both Gates and Williams are exploring the practical meaning of identity; that is, questions like: Who am I? And, who are we?

Questions about history and identity interest me a lot both personally and as mayor of our city.

In the past several years, I have learned far more about my predecessors than I ever knew before.

I had long known that my extended family’s story could be understood as part of the grand foundational narrative about white English settlers coming to the eastern shore of North America and gradually moving west. “Westward the Course of Empire,” as one famous painting is titled. “Davey, Davey Crockett, King of the wild frontier,” as I used to sing as a kid.

But as I’ve learned more about my ancestors, that foundational story has become much more complicated and interesting.

One part of that family, the Champions, moved from the east coast to settle in western Tennessee 209 years ago. To my dismay, I have learned that my great-great-great grandfather, Jordan Champion, owned three slaves. “Oh, my god!” In 1856 white western Tennesseans brutally suppressed a feared slave insurrection at the Great Western Furnace not far from the Champion family’s land. “I’m feeling history in a way I never never ever had begun to think about.”

But I also learned that my great-great-grandfather voted against secession from the Union in 1861. Two of that man’s sons – that is, my great-grandmother’s brothers – died fighting for the Confederacy, and one of them appears to have fought under Stonewall Jackson and then under Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg before dying.

But another part of my family immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1800s from Wales and Ireland. The Irish immigrants who were male worked as coal miners and lived very hard lives. My great-grandfather Michael O’Hara reportedly broke his back three times while working in the mines. His son, my grandfather Patrick O’Hara, disappeared during the Great Depression of the 30s.

The Welsh immigrants also lived very hard and dangerous lives working as coal miners for transcontinental railroad companies that used ethnic differences to set miners against miners. One of those Welsh immigrants, my great-grandfather Allen Roberts, was involved in a massacre of roughly 35 Chinese miners in southwestern Wyoming back in 1885. His wife, my great-grandmother Rebecca, died from pneumonia a few months later, with her body being tossed into an unmarked grave. My grandmother Janet O’Hara never saw either parent after the age of 3. And she too lived a very hard life.

And so on. By telling these tales from my own family’s history, I simply want to signal – along with Skip Gates – that the constant repetition of the grand narrative about White settlers moving west omits much of the complexity of American history and identity and undermines our ability to co-imagine and co-construct a future that would be good for all of us.

A few days ago, Governor Kim Reynolds’ reelection campaign began airing TV ads highlighting her Iowa roots. In that ad, she says, “Our story, it’s the Iowa story.”

Please don’t interpret my comments as a political attack on Governor Reynolds. But I want to highlight a larger point. She is basically claiming that she has lived, not just her personal story, but “the Iowa story.”

What about Henri Harper’s story. Is Henri not an Iowan?

Or my Egyptian Muslim friend, Shams Ghoneim? Is Shams not an Iowan?

Or my Central American Hispanic friend, Marcela Hurtado. Is Marcela not an Iowan?

Or me, or you. Are we not Iowans?

If all of us are Iowans and Americans, then one of our tasks is to help shape what it means to be an Iowa Citian, an Iowa, an American. It means working together to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. It means consistently asking, who is not participating in or benefiting from existing institutional structures and practices? It means becoming conscious of what Dr. Monique Morris calls “the deep unresolved grief” associated with “historical trauma.” It means co-constructing “a learning community.”

Beyond that, it means recognizing that the moment we are living in demands moral clarity, courage, and an ability to strengthen bonds of community across racial, ethnic, religious, and political divides.

This is a time for us to love one another, to care for one another, to help one another. It is a time to stand strong together – men and women, blacks and whites, gays and straights, disabled and abled, Latinos and Asians, union laborers and scholars, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others – time to stand together in solidarity with everyone who is at risk.

Standing strong together, we can “lead with love” and, by leading with love, help build the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community” right here in Iowa City.

 

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An Extraordinary Tour of Civil Rights Sites

[Note: This post is a slightly modified version of “Tour brings dark events in American history to life,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (July 21, 2018), p. 6A.]

From June 16 through 24, roughly 50 other people and I took part in a tour organized and conducted by Henri Harper (a Community Outreach Officer for the Iowa City Police Department) and greatly assisted by Jesse Case and others affiliated with Teamsters Local 728.

Most of us were black youth from Iowa City. I greatly enjoyed being with them, hearing them react to what they saw and learned, and I loved cheering for our basketball team when it made a great rally against a much larger team in Birmingham.

It proved to be a very enlightening, inspirational, and emotionally-powerful tour, which involved visiting a large number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, museums, and sites of important events in American history.

In Memphis, we visited Slave Haven Underground Museum, the Stax Museum of Music, and the Lorraine Hotel / National Civil Rights Museum.

In Birmingham, we met with Mayor Randall Woodfin and members of the city’s Fire and Rescue Departments; visited with officers of the City’s Police Department and its YouthFirst facility; and went to the 16th St. Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Kelly Ingram Park where dogs and fire hoses had been used against children back in 1963.

In Selma, we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where State Troopers on horseback had attacked marchers with tear gas and billy clubs.

In Montgomery, we explored the First White House of the Confederacy, the Rosa Parks Museum, the Civil Rights Museum / Wall of Tolerance, and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.

And in Atlanta, we visited The Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, the Ebenezer Baptist Church / King Center, and Dr. King’s birth home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.

You can find my day-to-day reporting about the tour on my Twitter site: https://twitter.com/Throg4IC

Let me share with you just a couple highlights.

Imagine yourself walking into the Dexter Ave. Parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama. The interior of the home is furnished much like it would have been when it was Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King’s home during the 1954-60 period he was pastor at the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church. You walk from room to room feeling the Kings’ presence. You come to the kitchen.

While you are standing in it, the tour guide tells you she’s going to play a recording of King describing what happened one night in January 1956. At that time King was 27 years old, two years into his role as pastor. Over the past month, he had been leading the Montgomery bus boycott, which had led to a series of death threats delivered via mail and phone to his residence — as many as 30 to 40 calls daily, often at night. Normally, King could put the phone down and go back to sleep. But one call, on the night of January 27, 1956, stood out.

The tour guide plays the recording.

As King’s wife, Coretta, and 10-week-old daughter, Yolanda, slept in the master bedroom nearby, the voice on the other end of the line said: “N____, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”

Shaken, King went to the kitchen (which you are standing in), made himself a cup of coffee, but soon buried his face in his hands. He began to pray aloud: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.” “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.’”

A few days later, their house was bombed.

After departing the parsonage, we visited the recently opened Legacy Museum in Montgomery @LegacyMuseum . A “narrative museum,” it tells the history of black Americans from enslavement, through the “Jim Crow” era of lynching and racial segregation, through the heroic actions of the Civil Rights Movement, to the present moment of mass incarceration and retrenchment.

Again, imagine yourself with us. Shortly after you enter the museum, you turn down a darkened pathway lined with replicas of slave pens. Looking into the first of the pens, you see a hologram of an enslaved black woman waiting to be sold at the nearby auction block. She begins speaking directly to you. You feel like you’ve just encountered the ghost of a mother who was about to lose her husband and children. It is an emotionally shattering experience.

Every American would benefit from exploring it slowly and then telling friends about what they learned.

 

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Considering a Major Rezoning near Downtown Iowa City

Last night (July 3, 2018), Iowa City’s City Council consulted with the Planning & Zoning Commission concerning a proposed rezoning of 12 Court St. from RM-44 to RFC-SD. RM-44 is the highest density residential zone in the city, and RFC-SD would permit much higher density by right and almost double that density if the council subsequently approves height bonuses.

After consulting with the commission, the council held its regular formal meeting. I reopened the public hearing to give the public an opportunity to express their views and concerns. After hearing people speak, we council members discussed various aspects of the proposed rezoning, but — pursuant to a request from the developer — we continued the public hearing and deferred 1st consideration of the ordinance rezoning the property to our August 7 meeting.

A few of the speakers made very negative comments about the actions our council has taken thus far concerning this proposed rezoning. Most of those comments were badly misinformed and distorted what we, and I in particular, have been doing.

The facts about my views and recommendations appear in a memo I sent to the Council on June 28. This memo appears in our June 28 Information Packet, which can be found at: https://www.icgov.org/councildocs?id=2178

I invite you to read it if you want to know what I think. The bottom line is I’m trying to make sure that any new project at 12 Court St. will be good for Iowa City.

The text of that memo follows, with minor typographical corrections.

Proposed Conditions for 12 Court Street Rezoning

Our agenda for Tuesday night’s formal meeting includes the proposal to rezone 12 Court Street from RM-44 to RFC-SD. Approval of this rezoning could result in construction of what might be the largest residential development ever proposed in Iowa City. As such, it requires careful thought and discussion on our part.

I generally support the proposed rezoning with the conditions recommended by the P&Z Commission. I do so primarily because the rezoning is largely consistent with the 2013 “Downtown and Riverfront Crossings Master Plan.” This Master Plan is an excellent piece of work, which was developed with a great deal of public participation. Moreover, the property at 12 Court Street is an ideal location for higher density, well-managed student-oriented housing; rezoning with conditions recommended by the staff and the P&Z Commission would open up Capitol Street; and the rezoning would require any new residential structures on the site to include a substantial number of affordable units. It is also possible, but not certain, that the additional residential units would put more downward pressure on rents in general throughout the city.

However, I also think it is necessary to attach additional conditions in order for the ultimate development to be more consistent with the Riverfront Crossings District Master Plan, as well as to address satisfactorily other concerns that have arisen during our past two meetings.

Background

When we opened the May 15 public hearing on the proposed rezoning, the Council had very little information about what the developer envisioned building on the site. All we had was a two-dimensional map showing the footprint of two rectangular buildings stretching from Burlington to Court, along with the Capitol Street right-of-way being dedicated to the City. I had heard that the developer expected to receive density/height bonuses that would maximize potential density. From this I inferred, but did not know for sure, that the developer envisioned building two elongated 15-story structures.

The proposed use was consistent with the Master Plan, but the intensity of the development appeared likely to be much greater than the 4-6 stories plus a possible height bonus recommended in that Plan. The discrepancy led me to say that I tentatively did not agree with the P&Z Commission’s recommendation. As I indicated during the meeting, I did not necessarily oppose what the developer wanted to build; I simply did not know what he wanted to build.

After considerable discussion, we continued the public hearing to May 29 so the developer could clarify his intentions. The developer agreed to do this.

Upon opening the continued public hearing on May 29, we learned the developer envisioned building four 15-story buildings, which would contain 800-1,000 residential units (primarily or perhaps exclusively for students) plus first floor retail. Except for the heights of the buildings, the birds-eye view image the developer provided appeared to be very similar to what was recommended in the Master Plan.

If we rezoned the property as recommended without any new conditions, the developer could deviate from the Master Plan in important ways, subject to subsequent review by the P&Z Commission and subject to final approval by the City staff and council through the Form Based Code design review process.

At least one Council member argued that there was no reason to delay the rezoning and that details would be resolved during the Form Based Code design review process.

However, I strongly believed the council should propose conditions for the rezoning as a way of signaling clearly what it expects from the developer rather have the developer spend a lot of money designing the buildings only to risk having the council deny the bonuses. Likewise, I thought council members would find it very difficult to reject the bonuses once the developer had spent a substantial amount of money on design and going through staff review processes.

Consequently, I argued we needed more time to identify and discuss possible conditions, which the council has a legal right to do. I also wanted to learn from P&Z Commissioners why they voted unanimously to support the proposed rezoning.

When I asked Council members during the May 29 meeting whether they were inclined to agree with the commission’s recommendation, 3 said they were and 3 said they were not. [One member was absent.] This meant we were required offer to consult with the commission and continue our public hearing to July 3.

This continuation would not and did not delay the developer’s project because the developer is not far enough along in his planning for the project. Moreover, if the rezoning is approved, the developer will still need to gain staff and council approval for any height bonuses he requests.

When thinking about height bonuses, it is important to keep in mind that the developer has no legal “right” to the bonuses. Whether or not they would be granted is solely up to the council’s discretion.

In the days after our May 29 meeting, I learned that perhaps as many as 2,000 residents, almost all of whom would be undergraduates, would be housed in the proposed development. Accompanied by the City Manager, I subsequently spoke with key officials at the University of Iowa to learn what the University’s interests are and about exploratory conversations it had held with the developer over the preceding 6+ months.

This process has led me to conclude that the most important things we need to do are: (1) to ensure that any residential structures designed to house as many as 2,000 students be designed and managed in a way that will enable those students to thrive academically; (2) to ensure that the overall ensemble of buildings achieves a high standard of urban design and therefore enhances the quality and character of the neighborhood; (3) to ensure that the Capitol St. right-of-way and green spaces within the development are opened up, well-furnished, and well-landscaped; and (4) to enable the developer to transfer density earned by his preservation of Tate Arms.

Recommended Conditions

With these factors in mind, I propose that we amend the motion by adding the following conditions to the proposed rezoning:

  1. The development must substantially conform with the footprint of the buildings shown on p. 61 of the Downtown and Riverfront Crossings Master Plan (“Master Plan”) and with the bird’s eye view presented to the Council on May 29, 2018 (“Bird’s Eye View”), copies of which are attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference.
  2. The development must include a landscaped and well-furnished pedestrian walkway running east-west between the buildings and an interior courtyard between the Voxman Music Building and the two easternmost buildings, as suggested in the Master Plan and shown in the Bird’s Eye View.
  3. The Owner shall retain an architect team to design both the exterior and interior components of the development. The architect team must have experience with both high quality urban design and large scale urban student housing and/or residence halls. The architect team shall be approved by the City Manager after consultation with the City Council.
  4. In accordance with the Riverfront Crossing Form-Based Code (FBC), any request for bonus height shall “demonstrate excellence in building and site design, use high quality building materials, and be designed in a manner that contributes to the quality and character of the neighborhood.” The development shall be eligible for height bonuses based only on public right-of-way dedication, historic preservation density transfer, and high-quality student housing. To assure that such quality and character is achieved, the following conditions shall apply to any bonus height:

A. The average height of the four major buildings may not exceed 8 stories, and the maximum heights of those four buildings must vary harmoniously. For example, the buildings could be between 6 and 10 stories with any height in excess of 8 stories to be approved by Council in accordance with the provisions of City Code Section 14-2G-7(G).

B. If the Owner seeks to transfer development rights from Tate Arms, said transfer shall be allowable as a replacement for the E-W pedestrian walkway between the two westernmost buildings with a structure not exceeding 4 stories in lieu of additional height on the four major buildings. [Bob Miklo is checking to see how many square feet could be achieved in a 4-story structure between the two westernmost buildings.]

C. Condition 4A notwithstanding, an average of one additional story may be permitted for the four major buildings in return for the developer dedicating the former Capitol Street right-of-way back to the City. The additional stories shall be used such that the maximum heights of the four major buildings continue to vary harmoniously.

D. Condition 4A notwithstanding, an average of one additional story may be permitted for the four major buildings for high quality student housing if the student-housing-related requirements in Section 14-2G-7(G)(8) of the FBC are met. The additional stories shall be used such that the maximum heights of the four major buildings continue to vary harmoniously.

E. In addition to the story indicated in Condition 4D, an average of two more stories may be permitted for the four major buildings if the interiors of the buildings are designed, maintained, and operated according to standards used by The University of Iowa in its newest residence halls. The additional stories shall be used such that the maximum heights of the four major buildings continue to vary harmoniously.

 

 

Bird’s eye view presented to the Council on May 29, 2018

 

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State of the City, Iowa City 2018

On February 20, 2018, I presented a “State of the City” speech during the regular formal meeting of the City Council of Iowa City. Here is the text I used when delivering that speech.

State of the City

Fellow Council members and fellow residents of Iowa City, it is my great honor to present to you this year’s State of the City address.

Let me begin by thanking you, the people of Iowa City, for participating in the democratic life of our city, and for keeping your elected representatives’ feet to the fire.

Thanks go as well to the hundred or more local residents who currently serve on the City’s 19 boards and commissions. Their work is important and greatly appreciated.

I also want to thank my fellow Council members for their dedicated service. To be a good Council member requires committing time away from one’s family, frequently attending long nighttime meetings, and finding a way to fairly represent the diverse opinions of our engaged residents.

Last, I want to thank the hundreds of City staff members – police officers, firefighters, librarians, bus drivers, street cleaning and parks maintenance crews, and everyone else – who keep our City running day in and day out.

Due largely to all of you, and to the efforts of local businesses and employees, our city is very strong and healthy. Here are just a few indicators:

The city’s population grew to a little over 74,000 people in 2017.

At slightly over 2%, our unemployment rate is the fourth lowest in the country.

And, as can be seen in the physical landscape, a tremendous amount of new construction took place over the past year: the annual average dollar value of new construction in 2016 and 2017 almost doubled that of the average from 2012 through 2015.

Occasionally the objects of intense public debate, prominent markers of this changing physical landscape include the new Hilton Garden Inn, The Chauncey, The Rise at Linn and Court, Augusta Place, and several new multi-family residential structures in Riverfront Crossings and other parts of the city. Moreover, the University opened its new Stead Family Children’s Hospital and Catlett Residence Hall, and it announced plans to construct a new Art Museum and a new Psychology and Brain Sciences Building. The School District opened New Hoover Elementary, it’s building a major addition to Longfellow, and it’s preparing to build similar additions to Lincoln, Mann, and other schools.

As is true for any good local government, your Council and staff have been focused primarily on providing routine city services effectively, efficiently, and in a fiscally sound manner. But your City government has also been engaged in a huge amount of public works construction. Here are just a few examples.

Most important, we made great progress in elevating N. Dubuque St. and building the new Park Rd. Bridge. This Gateway project, which will greatly reduce damage from future floods, should be completed by November. We also completed work on the 1st Avenue railroad underpass, which greatly increases accessibility for businesses and residents in the southeast side of the city. And we completed a major renovation of Washington St. downtown.

The public’s overall assessment of the city’s current condition is clear. In a recent survey of 1,400 residents regarding the livability of Iowa City, 87% of respondents rated the quality of life here as excellent or good, and 90% rated the city as an excellent or good place to live. For these and related reasons, national rating services routinely recognize our city as being a great place to live, to work, and to raise a family.

But these accolades do not tell the whole story.

Not everyone shares equitably in our prosperity. Our city does have a very low unemployment rate, but we recently learned that Proctor and Gamble will be eliminating roughly 500 jobs from its beauty care facility two years from now. Over 37% of the School District’s students participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, and there are vast differences (from 11 to 78%) among schools. Sixty-six percent of renting households pay more than 30% of their income on housing, and respondents to the survey I just mentioned give the city a low rating with regard to the affordability of housing. Some Iowa Citians feel threatened because of their race, ethnicity, or faith, and many of us are very fearful about flyers and social media posts that promote white supremacy and racial hatred, and about what might happen when we are stopped or searched or just observed by the police. Some of us find it very difficult to travel by public transit from home to work and to other important destinations. Although the overall incidence of violent crime in our city decreased by 11 percent, there were four highly-publicized murders in 2017. And there is compelling evidence that our way of life (especially our reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels) risks undermining our grandchildren’s future prospects.

For these reasons, while we are committed to providing normal city services effectively and efficiently, we focused a considerable amount of attention in 2017 on fostering a more inclusive, just, and sustainable city, especially with regard to improving racial equity; providing more affordable housing for low-to-moderate income households; producing a more vibrant and walkable urban core; and preparing a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

While we still have quite a way to go, I am very pleased with what we have accomplished so far. I won’t bore you with a long litany of work we have been doing. Instead, let me highlight just a few key actions:

  • We adopted the State’s most ambitious Affordable Housing Action Plan in September 2016. Since then, we have allocated more than $1.65M into an affordable housing fund. We also contributed $600K to an affordable housing project in Towncrest, which leveraged millions in outside dollars for the $7.4 million project. And we have taken many regulatory and financial actions designed to increase the supply of housing for cost-burdened low-to-moderate income households. Moreover, by the end of next year, several new multi-family residential and mixed-use structures intended primarily for students will have increased the supply of high-quality rental housing by more than 4,000 bedrooms since 2015. This should put downward pressure on rents;
  • We have taken major steps toward improving racial equity in our city. Under the direction of our outstanding new Police Chief, Jody Matherly, the Police Department is committed to reducing disproportionate minority contact involving discretionary charges in non-traffic related incidents, and to reducing disproportionality identified in the St. Ambrose traffic study regarding traffic stops, searches, and arrests;
  • We adopted a new Master Parks Plan and a new Bicycle Master Plan, both of which will help us build a more vibrant and walkable urban core, and foster healthy neighborhoods throughout the city;
  • Working in concert with other cities around the world, we established carbon emission reduction goals, hired a consultant, and created a steering committee to help us develop an ambitious Climate Action and Adaption Plan;
  • We collaborated with the School Board in manner that ultimately resulted in passage of a bond referendum that will fund improvements to all of our public schools;
  • And after 15+ months of extensive public and stakeholder participation, we embedded our values concerning affordable housing, climate action, historic preservation, and social justice into an amended policy regarding the City’s use of Tax Increment Financing.

Just today, the Council identified a set of strategic priorities for the next two years. To highlight just a few, we intend to:

  • Expand upon and strengthen our response to the affordable housing challenge;
  • Work with Proctor & Gamble, local economic development organizations, and labor unions to respond effectively to the company’s intention to terminate its local production of beauty care products;
  • Initiate a study of public transit routes and hours of operation, possibly in collaboration with neighboring cities and the University;
  • Adopt an effective Climate Action and Adaptation Plan;
  • And embed the “Missing Middle” concept into the City’s land development practices by devising a Form Based Code for the neighborhood near Alexander Elementary;

Our Capital Improvements Plan for 2018 and 2019 also includes substantial amounts of money for completion of the Gateway Project, further development of Riverfront Crossings Park, construction of the proposed Behavioral Health Access Center, reconstruction of the Pedestrian Mall downtown, street pavement rehabilitation, improvements to key intersections on Burlington Street downtown, and extension of McCollister Blvd. from S. Gilbert to Sycamore.

I feel very good about reporting all these actions to you. But I must also speak frankly about other factors that are largely out of our control.

A year ago, I reported that 2016 had been filled with good news and great progress but ended with an array of traumatic challenges stemming from the November 2016 election. Quoting Charles Dickens, I indicated, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”.

The past year emphatically elaborated upon that theme. Yes, Iowa City has continued to blossom, but that blossoming has taken place in a context marked by a tidal wave of presidential executive orders and federal and state policies and laws that are undermining the values that make Iowa City such a great place to live, especially its openness, diversity, inclusivity, and spirit of democratic engagement. It often seemed as though we were inhabiting two parallel worlds throughout 2017.

No doubt there will be more executive orders and legislation that run directly counter to our values. Consequently, we are being challenged to adjust – at least temporarily – to new realities without losing our moral compass.

These are not normal times. This is no time for fighting among ourselves. Yes, we should passionately debate about local issues, but the moment we are living through demands moral clarity, courage, and an ability to strengthen bonds of community across racial, ethnic, religious, and political divides. This is a time for us to love one another, to care for one another, to help one another. It is a time to stand strong together – men and women, blacks and whites, gays and straights, disabled and abled, Latinos and Asians, union laborers and scholars, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others – stand together in solidarity with everyone who is at risk.

Standing strong together, we can take our cue from the Oakdale Prison Community Choir and its recent performance in this room. Let us “lead with love” and, by leading with love, help build the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community” right here in Iowa City.

Acting together and leading with love, we can—and we will—survive, recover, and ensure that our city will continue to thrive long into the future.

Thank you.

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Rejecting hate speech, intimidation, and violent acts

[Note: Iowa City City government released this statement on August 18, 2017, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen published it as a guest opinion (“Mayor: We reject hate speech, violence”) on p. 7 of their August 19 edition.]

A few days ago, Charlottesville, Virginia, was the site of a “Unite the Right” rally by armed white supremacists and neo-Nazis who brandished swastikas, Confederate battle flags, anti-Semitic banners, and “Trump/Pence” signs while chanting “blood and soil.”

The rally, which took place at Emancipation Park around a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, led to fighting in the streets and the death of a young woman and the injury of 19 other people after a gray Dodge Challenger driven by a Nazi sympathizer rammed into a group of counter-protesters.

The President initially blamed “many sides” for the violent conflict. He delivered a statement a day later declaring that “Racism is evil” and “Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, white supremacists, and other hate groups.” Another day later he furiously ranted that “alt-left” activists were just as responsible for the bloody confrontation as the armed neo-Nazi marchers.

Does this President have no shame? To protest against racism is not morally equivalent to armed efforts at intimidation.

My uncles, Rannie and A. W., served in the U. S. Army during World War II, helping to defeat Nazis and Fascists. They could never have imagined that 70 years later the President of their country would be providing cover for neo-Nazi white supremacists. My uncles and other brave soldiers must be cringing in their graves.

We need elected leaders who can speak truthfully and can forthrightly express the moral values we stand for.

On behalf of the people of Iowa City, I say, we reject neo-Nazis who seek to intimidate others and promulgate their hate-filled ideology. Their white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist beliefs and actions are completely antithetical to our belief in the value of living in a diverse and inclusive community.

We reject hate speech and acts or threats of violence.

We are committed to the provisions of our City Charter, the human rights provisions of our City Code, and the provisions of the U. S. Constitution that protect civil liberties and provide equal protection under the law.

We grieve for the families of the young woman and two state troopers who were killed and those who were injured in Charlottesville this past weekend.

We offer our unqualified support to the people of Charlottesville, whose leaders have also renounced the acts and words of hate groups in their community.

And we ally ourselves with a statement recently issued by a coalition of environmental organizations:

“No one who stands for justice, equality, and human dignity can stay silent any longer. We will stand unified against the white nationalist movement that everyday threatens America’s people and ideals, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. We will ultimately prevail by countering this hate with love.”

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Why I Support the Proposed School Bond

[Note: This post reflects my own personal views concerning a September 12, 2017, bond referendum proposed by the Iowa City Community School District. The post initially appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on or about July 27, 2017. The Press-Citizen version is available at: http://www.press-citizen.com/story/opinion/contributors/guest-editorials/2017/07/27/mayor-throgmorton-why-support-school-bond-iowa-city-schools/515108001/ ]

The School District’s Facilities Master Plan (FMP) and proposed bond issue are not perfect. Both of them contain specific elements that any particular individual might reasonably dislike or oppose. When considered as a whole, however, and considering the extensive planning, public engagement, and negotiation that went into development of the FMP, the end result is a remarkable synthesis.

In what follows, I look at that remarkable synthesis as a taxpayer, resident of Iowa City’s North Side, parent of former students at Longfellow and Mann, mayor of Iowa City, and voter in School District elections.

For years, residents of Iowa City rightly complained that the District was using our dollars to fund new schools in nearby cities while failing to maintain and improve in our older schools or build any new ones. By adopting the FMP in 2013, however, the School Board explicitly recognized the importance of investing in Iowa City’s schools.

And it has followed through on that commitment. The School District estimates that the 10-year FMP will cost a total of $347 million. Roughly 54% of this total will have been directed toward our city’s schools if the bond referendum passes.

In the past 3 years alone, the District has invested roughly $76.9 million toward completing major additions and/or improvements at Twain, Lucas, Weber, Hoover, and City High; building two new elementary schools (Alexander and New Hoover); and making additions and upgrades at Longfellow and West.

If enough voters check “yes” on the bond referendum, the District will invest another $111.2 million in Iowa City schools. This will include: major renovations and/or additions at Mann, Lincoln, Shimek, Horn, Grant Wood, Alexander, and Lemme; an addition to Southeast Jr. High; a renovation at West High; and additions and upgrades to City and Tate High Schools.

In my judgment, completion of these planned investments is absolutely necessary to ensure the long-term viability of Iowa City’s older neighborhoods and to accommodate population growth in newer parts of the city.

Moreover, I think that very few of the planned investments will be made if at least 60% of the voters do not vote “yes” on the referendum. Much to our regret, we will find ourselves returning to the days of fighting over the District’s much more limited dollars.

Some opponents emphasize the magnitude of the bond issue. I agree that it won’t be trivial. The District estimates that paying off the bonds will require a property tax increase of 98 cents per $1,000 in assessed home valuation. But what this really means is that property taxpayers in Coralville, North Liberty, Iowa City, and other parts of the School District will be investing in our children, our schools, our neighborhoods, and our cities.

For Iowa City taxpayers, this increase in the School District’s property tax levy will be partially offset by a reduction in the City’s levy. When Iowa City’s Council adopted the City’s Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget, it reduced the City’s property tax levy rate by 25 cents per $1,000 in assessed value. Since FY 2012, this constitutes a $1.51 per $1,000 reduction in the City’s property tax levy.

I also recognize that some Iowa Citians (many of whom are good friends of mine) are dismayed that the FMP calls for closing Hoover Elementary without clearly indicating how that site would be used in the future. If the bond referendum passes, I would like to see District officials work with Hoover and City High neighbors to develop and refine 3 or 4 alternative plans for City High’s use of the Hoover site. The process could be modeled after the one that has recently been used to decide how to improve Mann Elementary. I would be eager to assist in this process.

For these and many other reasons, I will be voting an enthusiastic “yes” on September 12 for our students, for our schools, for our neighborhoods, for Iowa City, and for our School District.

Jim Throgmorton is Mayor of Iowa City. This column represents his personal opinions and not necessarily those of Iowa City government.

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