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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Paradise in the Wreckage of War

[Note: This post is a slightly modified version of “Paradise in the Wreckage of War,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (May 13, 2017), p. 7A.]

On April 25-29, Chris Merrill of the U. of Iowa’s International Writing Program and I were in Baghdad, Iraq, attending that city’s Festival of Flowers. We made this trip after receiving a surprise invitation from Baghdad’s first female mayor, Dr. Thikra Alwash, and the Director of Baghdad City of Literature, Sadek Mohammed. I can’t begin to convey what an extraordinary experience this was, but I do want to share some highlights with you.

Mayor Alwash has a very difficult job, one that is vastly harder than mine. Her city has been devastated by two invasions, a decade-long trade embargo, and violent internal conflict. But her city has been bouncing back from those traumas and now shows significant signs of recovery. That Dr. Alwash has been appointed mayor might be one of those signs.

We could see evidence of devastation almost everywhere we looked: destroyed buildings, roadways bordered by concrete barriers, pervasive security checkpoints, horrendously congested traffic, and streets lined with posters of “martyrs” who have died fighting against ISIS.

But Baghdad is also a city in which life and hope survive. This we felt in the warmth and generosity shown to us by Mayor Alwash and her staff, Sadek Mohammed, Sheik Ibrahim Hawash, and many ordinary Baghdadis. We saw it during our guided tour of the Iraq National Museum – officially reopened in 2015 after being looted immediately after the 2003 invasion – and its stunning array of archaeological artifacts extending back 5,000 years. We could almost touch it during our guided walk through dense crowds of ordinary Baghdadis on “Booksellers Street” and other parts of old Baghdad. And we heard it in the voices and tones of the traditional Baghdadi singers and musicians we witnessed in the Baghdad City Museum.

Unquestionably for me, the high point of our visit was attending the Festival of Flowers’ opening ceremony in the Garden of Ridvan on the banks of the Tigris River. There – surrounded by the wreckage of war – we joined a few thousand Baghdadis (including small children) in walking around, hearing music, seeing fireworks, admiring beautifully designed flower gardens, and visiting an array of booths in which various kinds of handmade art were displayed.

At one point during the festival, Sadek introduced us to a young man named Ahmed Raheem Kadhim whose dream is to visit the U. S. and learn how to become a jazz saxophonist. We asked him to play for us, which he did with friends and news media photographing him. You should have seen the joy in his face!

I awoke the next morning thinking that, in relation to the surrounding wreckage of war, the festival in the park felt like an earthly paradise. It signaled that recovery was taking place and that Baghdadis were experiencing a rebirth of hope and wonder.

But as we were speeding back in an SUV to our tightly guarded Hotel Babylon the following night, and just after Chris Merrill said “We could be driving down any street in the world,” a massive car bomb exploded at the entrance to a police station maybe 500 meters to our left. With ISIS later claiming responsibility for the deaths of 4 and wounding of 8 that it caused, this explosion clearly asserted that Baghdad is not yet free of violent sectarian conflict.

Why is Baghdad so damaged? What role have we Americans played in producing and continuing that damage? What should we in America do now? I pondered those questions while in Baghdad, partly because I was just finishing Andrew Bacevich’s 2016 prize-winning book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East.

Bacevich reviews America’s military involvement in the Middle East from the early 1970s through 2015. He tells a tale of the U. S.’s effort to, initially, ensure unimpeded access to Persian Gulf oil, and, later, to use our country’s military power to maintain America’s privileged position in the global order. With considerable credibility, Bacevich claims the effort has failed abysmally and future efforts to impose order militarily are unlikely to succeed and might well make things worse.

Rather, he argues the War for the Greater Middle East is “a diversion that Americans can ill afford…[W[hether the United States is able to shape the Greater Middle East will matter less than whether it can reshape itself, restoring effectiveness to self-government, providing for sustainable and equitable prosperity, and extracting from a vastly diverse culture something to hold in common of greater moment than shallow digital enthusiasms and the worship of celebrity” (p. 370).

For me at least, Bacevich’s message was clear: for Mayor Alwash to succeed in Baghdad, we need to repair our own house.

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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

[Note: This is the text of a State of the City speech I delivered at a formal meeting of the Iowa City City Council on February 21, 2017.]

Good evening, friends. It’s my great honor to present this year’s State of the City address.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, 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”.

Although Charles Dickens wrote those words for a different place and time, they resonate with our experience in 2016. We had a year filled with good news and great progress, but also a year that ended with an array of traumatic challenges.

Let’s first celebrate the best of the year, beginning with quick overview.

Iowa City has been experiencing an unprecedented construction boom.

It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.4%, just half the national average.

The City’s property tax levy declined for the 5th straight year while the City also maintained its Aaa Moody’s bond rating.

The city’s cultural core continued to pulse with life due primarily to the University, the Englert, the City of Literature, Film Scene, the Summer of the Arts, the Juneteenth and Pride Festivals, and many others.

And the city continued to be blessed with thousands of residents who strongly believe in the value of democratic governance, and who enact that belief by serving on our many boards and commissions and by participating in a broad array of not-for-profit organizations including the League of Women Voters, Friends of Historic Preservation, the Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Worker Justice, Shelter House, the Downtown District, the Rotary Club, the Affordable Housing Coalition, and many others.

Your City Council and staff have also been very productive.

We adopted a new Strategic Plan. It established seven priority areas of action, which collectively intend to foster a more inclusive, just, and sustainable city. While we still have quite a way to go, I am very pleased with what we have accomplished so far.

The first Priority calls for the City to “promote a strong and resilient economy.” I am happy to report that the city has witnessed a tremendous amount of new construction over the past year. In 2016, 794 building permits were issued at a total value of slightly over $388M. This reflects a very big jump over 2015 when 645 permits valued at $138M were issued. The University opened its new Hancher Auditorium, Voxman Music Building, Art Building, and will soon open the Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Construction of The Rise at Linn and Court, the Hilton Garden Inn, The Chauncey, several projects in the Riverfront Crossings District, and many other smaller but important projects is well underway. The School District’s new Alexander Elementary school completed its first full year, and the new Hoover Elementary is not far behind. The completed 1st Avenue grade separation project is proving to be a resounding success. Major improvements to Washington St. downtown were all but finished, and substantial progress was made on the flood-related Gateway Project and new Park Road bridge.

As part of this effort to ensure our local economy remains strong and resilient, we have also been working with the County to strengthen the local food sector. By providing additional community garden space, holding nutrition education programs in local neighborhood parks, and supplementing the Farmer’s Market effort to “Double Up Food Bucks,” we are introducing local fresh foods to a new audience. And, as many of you remember, last summer’s “Farm to Street” dinner with locally-grown dishes prepared by local chefs was a delightful way to spend an evening.

Additionally, we have taken major steps toward updating our economic development and Tax Increment Financing policies. One update requires that 15% of residential units must be affordable in any new project that requests TIF support. After receiving advice from over 60 diverse stakeholders, we are also very close to recommending other specific changes to our TIF policies.

Priority 2 encourages “building a vibrant and walkable urban core,” and Priority 3 seeks to “foster healthy neighborhoods throughout the city.” Last year the City hosted nationally-recognized experts such as Jeff Speck and Jay Walljasper to facilitate discussions about best practices for community design and walkable cities. And we hired a nationally respected urban design firm headed by Dan Parolak to help us prepare new development standards for the Northside and Alexander Elementary neighborhoods.

We also took major steps towards improving the bicycling and pedestrian experience. We set a goal of raising our bike-friendly status from silver to gold by the end of this year and ultimately achieving platinum status. We began updating the City’s Bicycle Master Plan so that we could expand our systems, increase accessibility, and ensure that traveling within and between neighborhoods is safe and easy. Street projects such as the ones on 1st Avenue and S. Sycamore included substantially improved infrastructure for bicycling. And let’s not forget the hugely successful UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup race, which was held here last September and televised internationally.

To foster healthy neighborhoods throughout the city, we have also been making major investments in our neighborhood and community parks. These investments include playground installations and improvements at Highland and Mercer Parks, along with ones planned for Cardigan, Frauenholtz-Miller and Pleasant Hill Parks this spring. The Parks Department and Parks & Recreation Commission completed their Master Park Plan, which also addresses ADA accessibility at park facilities. The City’s first tree inventory is underway. It will help us sustain and develop our urban forest and be more strategic in responding to the Emerald Ash Borer infestation.

Priority 4 seeks to “maintain a solid financial foundation” for the City’s operations. The very good news is that our Aaa bond rating continues, and that the City is secure enough financially for our proposed FY18 Budget to reduce the City’s property tax levy for the 6th straight year, this time by 25 cents.

We have also been increasing our emergency fund so that we can respond effectively to natural disasters and periods of financial distress. We are acutely aware that the State Legislature might eliminate promised “backfill” payments for commercial and industrial property tax cuts enacted in 2013. Preparing for this possibility enables us to avoid or alleviate possible adverse impacts, such as service cuts or increases in the tax levy.

Our 5th Priority is to “Enhance Community Engagement and Intergovernmental Relations.” We have tried very hard to improve collaborative relationships with other local governments, and we have improved our ability to connect with diverse parts of the Iowa City community. As part of this effort, City Councilors conducted 5 listening posts in diverse parts of the city, and I took 5 “Mayor’s Walks” through our city’s neighborhoods. Our City staff dramatically improved its public outreach efforts through Cable Channel 4 and other media, including televising Council work sessions. And we hired a new Community Outreach Officer in the Police Department.

The 6th Priority, “promoting environmental sustainability,” is woven throughout our Strategic Plan. In addition to the bike amenities and plans mentioned earlier, City staff put on a Monarch butterfly festival and various educational conservation programs, created an edible classroom with Backyard Abundance, and introduced improvements to the City’s recycling and solid waste programs. For the first time, the Parks and Recreation Department gave itself a “Million Gallon Challenge” to conserve water, and we exceeded the goal by saving over 1.5 million gallons. Staff also integrated the STAR Community Rating program into the City’s Budget, which allows us to quickly analyze our status with regard to specific sustainability measures.

We also initiated an ambitious Climate Action and Adaptation Planning effort by taking three steps: first, we adopted the challenging goals of reducing carbon emissions 26% by 2026 and 80% by 2050; second, we are on the verge of hiring a consultant to advise us about how we can achieve those goals; and, third, we created a Climate Action Plan Steering Committee, which will play a major role in building community support for key climate-related actions.

Not many issues have gained more attention recently than the concerns of social justice and racial equity. These concerns are the subject of our 7th Priority.

To promote social justice and respond to the pressures our residents feel in finding housing they can afford, we approved a comprehensive Affordable Housing Action Plan. This Action Plan intends to improve the overall affordability of housing in the city, to increase the supply of housing that low-to-moderate income households can afford, and to help the School District achieve better socio-economic balance among its schools. City staff issued construction permits for 1,080 new dwelling units. We adopted a new “Inclusionary Housing” ordinance for the Riverfront Crossings District, and we adopted an ordinance which will facilitate establishment of a new “Housing First” facility for chronically homeless individuals. We allocated $500K to the Johnson County Housing Trust Fund. We also authorized transition payments for former tenants of Rose Oaks Apartments who had been displaced unexpectedly by the new owner’s desire to renovate that complex. Through various measures, not only are we diversifying affordable housing geographically but also by housing type.

In addition to these housing affordability efforts, we also initiated use of a Racial and Socioeconomic Equity Toolkit within five City departments on a one-year trial basis, and we empowered our Human Rights Commission to recommend how to allocate funds contained in our new Social Justice and Racial Equity Grant Program.

Our Police Department hired a new Community Outreach Officer and three new black officers. This will improve the Department’s ability to serve and protect the city’s diverse neighborhoods and ensure that our city remains a safe and welcoming place for all its residents. Furthermore, having recently hired a new Police Chief, we can now respond more fully to disproportionality in police contacts and arrests.

Considered as a whole, this set of 7 priorities constitutes a pretty ambitious agenda. Achieving them requires that we provide sufficient resources through our budgeting process.  Tonight, we will be setting the date for a public hearing on our proposed budget for FY18 and our 5-year Capital Improvements Program.

In addition to reducing the City’s property tax levy by 25 cents, the proposed budget allocates $650K to the Affordable Housing Fund, and provides funds to restore parts of the Englert Theater and to preserve elements of Film Scene’s existing operation. It provides funds to compete work on developing Form Based Codes for the Northside and Alexander neighborhoods. It provides funds to conduct an Emerald Ash Borer Response Plan and to improve our neighborhood parks. It continues the very successful UniverCity program with up to 5 new units per year. It assigns $150K for complete street improvements, and increases the annual pavement rehabilitation budget to $1.5M. And, of course, the Budget provides funds to complete work on the Gateway Project

Due to the success of new programs this year, the proposed budget also increases funding in several areas, including from $100K to $150K for carbon emission reduction projects, from $25K to $30K for a local foods project, and $40K for a new residential historic preservation assistance program. The Capital Improvements Program also includes funds for streetscape improvements and a tunnel for pedestrians along S. Riverside Dr., further development of Riverfront Crossings Park, reconfiguring the intersection of Clinton and Burlington Streets, and converting part of Clinton St. to a 3-lane street with bike lanes. In 2018, we will begin work on Phase I of a new public works facility on Sand Road, and will begin making important incremental changes to downtown’s Pedestrian Mall.

Let me turn now to the second half of the Dickens quotation.

In a January 2016 op-ed for The Gazette, I wrote, “we are not completely the masters of our own fate. We will encounter unexpected events.” Sure enough, we have had to respond to several such events, including the departures of our City Manager, Police Chief, and City Clerk. The good news is that we were able to hire an a truly outstanding young City Manager, an impressive new Chief of Police, a terrific new Assistant City Manager and Director of Parks & Recreation, and to recruit a highly-respected individual to become our next City Clerk.

But the political context for our work will be quite different in 2017.

Few observers anticipated the outcome of last November’s election. That election consolidated political control in the hands of one political party, the priorities of which are quite different from those of our Council. Consequently, we must adjust to new realities without losing our moral compass.

Already we have seen the new President issue an array of executive orders concerning immigration and refugees that undermine the values that have made Iowa City such a great place to live: openness, diversity, inclusivity and creativity. Thousands of immigrants, refugees, non-Christians, and others are especially at risk, and we stand in solidarity with them.

Already we have seen the State Legislature approve new legislation that tramples upon the long-established rights of public employees to have a say in their working conditions. Hundreds of dedicated men and women work hard for the people of our city, and we fully support them.

No doubt there will be more executive orders and legislation that run directly counter to our objectives. Despite this somewhat discouraging prediction, I take heart in the ability of our Council and staff to carefully weigh options before us, adjust quickly to adverse circumstances and unexpected opportunities, and do what is best for the people of Iowa City.

But we cannot do this alone. We will need help from all of you, especially with regard to protecting the most vulnerable of our residents. Acting together, we can—and will—ensure that this city we love continues to thrive long into the future.

Thank you.

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