Alter Course in Near Southside

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. Iowa City Press-Citizen (July 2): 17A.

Our recent bout with flooding has altered my plans. Natural disasters tend to have that kind of effect, don’t they? You’re calmly sailing through life, following your normal routine, when suddenly everything gets tossed upside down. Like it did in Greensburg, Kansas, which I passed through a month ago. On the night of May 4, 2007, a 1.7 mile-wide F5 tornado traveling at 200 miles per hour killed 11 people, stranded 1500, and converted virtually the entire town into a wasteland.

For those who experience such sudden disasters, the question always becomes, what can we do now to recover? The natural tendency is to rebuild what came before. In Greensburg, however, people are taking a different tack. According to Kathryn Shattuck in the June 10 edition of the New York Times, “Today Greensburg is unfurling like spring growth on the prairie, an oasis of environmental awareness and sustainability in the early phases of reconstruction whose residents are striving to build the nation’s first Platinum city, the highest certification green design can attain.”

Greensburg’s ambitions come to mind as I look at the two new 4-story brick buildings going up just across Court Street from the Courthouse. Sights set too low, these two new buildings constitute a missed opportunity to help transform the Near Southside into a lovely, walkable, resource-efficient neighborhood that will serve Iowa Citians well for the next 50 years or more. Greensburg tells us we can do better.

Unlike in Greensburg, where the residents are striving to build a better city through high quality green design, these two new buildings have not been designed to be LEED certifiable. As some of you already know, LEED stands for Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design. Devised by the Green Building Council, this rating system signals to builders and users just how efficiently a building will use natural resources. When compared to equivalent conventionally designed buildings, LEED-certified structures use less water and energy, produce less carbon dioxide, generate less construction waste, and provide healthier indoor air quality and greater occupant satisfaction at much lower cost over the lifetime of the building. Since buildings like the new ones at Court and Clinton can have a life span of more than 50 years, the difference in lifetime performance can be enormous.

Gradually transforming the Near Southside into a resource-efficient neighborhood will require more than efficient buildings, however; a new building could be located in a field south of Hills and still be certified. Housed in a field, the occupants of the building would have to drive long distances for everything else that matters in life. Recognizing this, the Green Building Council has produced a pilot rating system for Neighborhood Design.

When interpreted as components of a potentially LEED-certifiable neighborhood, the two buildings at Court and Clinton look better for two reasons. First, they are in a great location, just south of downtown and the University; and second, they are helping to transform the Near Southside into a compact and walkable neighborhood that has terrific linkages to the city’s public transit system. With gasoline currently costing about $3.95 per gallon, this fact can only increase the neighborhood’s market appeal over time. What’s more, the occupants of these building will (if all goes well) also be able to walk about four blocks south to the Old Depot where by 2010 or 2011 they will be able to join 187,000 other passengers arriving or departing annually on AMTRAK trains connected with Chicago.

Even resource efficiency at the neighborhood scale will not be sufficient, however, for efficient buildings in a good location do not necessarily yield urbane space. A truly good urban neighborhood shimmers with well-designed individual buildings, public spaces, and streetscapes that enable a diverse mix of people to feel inspired and fully alive when they walk. On these grounds the two new buildings at Court and Clinton come up short. Although reasonable in height, bulk, and mixed-use character, the buildings fail to complement the lovely County Courthouse, replicate a style that is becoming far too common on the south side, and portend a gradual transition toward a neighborhood full of clones.

Like the people of Greensburg, we need to alter course.

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