A Development Mistake on the Eastern Edge of Downtown Iowa City

On January 8, 2013, a 5-1 majority of the City Council of Iowa City chose a preferred development for the site at the northeast corner of College and Gilbert Streets. I think the majority’s decision was a mistake. The following paragraphs explain why I came to this conclusion.

The staff had prepared a decision matrix to help us make the decision. The matrix included five “criteria/factors” which could be scored, and which had been preliminarily weighted to reflect “what the staff considers their respective importance”: (1) financial considerations (30%), which included information about each alternative’s request for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) support and 30-year Present Value estimates of property tax revenues; (2) each alternative’s proposed mix of uses within the building (25%); (3) design elements incorporated into each alternative, including “evidence of sustainable design” (20%); (4) the mass and scale of the proposed building (15%); and (5) each developer’s statement summarizing its experience, passion and vision (10%).

The staff asked us to either accept the matrix as is or change the proposed weighting. They proposed to walk us through each criterion during a work session preceding our formal meeting, and to solicit our rank order scores (on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being the best) along the way. They would then average our scores.

As we entered our scores, weighted average scores would be generated for each project, and the scores would be displayed on a screen. This would be done during the work session. The choice would be ratified during the formal meeting, with Council members considering the matrix, public comment, developer information, and other factors. If consensus already exists, the staff said, there would be no need to use the matrix. The staff also indicated that they would be returning to us later in the year with a request that we rezone the parcel of land from P-1 and CB-5 to CB-10.

Having read the decision matrix and accompanying material quite closely, I intended to bring up several topics for discussion. Most important, I thought we needed to discuss the matrix and the criteria thoroughly enough to make sure we understood them. For example, I did not fully understand how the 30-year present values had been calculated. I also felt it was not clear what was being counted as “workforce housing” in the mix of uses category. I thought we should consider whether we wanted to add/delete any criteria, and consider whether we thought the criteria were weighted appropriately. (In my view, each council member should be free to assign her/his own weight to them, so long as the total added up to 100%.) I also thought we should calculate scores for the baseline alternative (what would be built by the private market without TIF support if we simply rezoned the land and sold it to a willing buyer), mainly because the staff had told us it would be recommending rezoning the land to CB-10. This would automatically increase the value of the baseline alternative, although the staff had used CB-5 in the background information provided to us. If we did not feel fully comfortable with our understanding and decisions, I thought we should defer our final decision for one or two weeks.

These topics proved irrelevant, for a majority of the Council quickly decided it to set the decision matrix aside. Instead, each Councilor simply indicated her or his 1st, 2nd, and 3rd preferences with very little discussion. Suddenly it became clear that 5 councilors supported The Chauncey, a 20-story project that had been proposed by a developer who had recently been provided TIF support to build a controversial 14-story building in the downtown core.

All that remained was to ratify this decision during the formal meeting. Each councilor commented on why he or she had chosen The Chauncey. I used the written text shown below to convey my views.

“I’m very pleased to see the interest this project has generated, and I thank all of the development teams for committing their time and energy to it. And I thank all the people who have spoken to us about this project.

There are features to like in each of the proposals.

My preferred alternative is 4Zero4. The best features of this proposal are its relatively modest height and mass; its very strong and unqualified commitment to sustainability, especially with regard to energy use; its linkages to important community groups; and its emphasis on modest income workforce housing. I also like its relatively modest TIF request and quick pay back time. Its least appealing feature, in my view, is its exterior design (at least as displayed in the architectural renderings).

Chauncey Gardens is my second choice. By far its best feature is the extent to which it has incorporated publicly accessible green space into the building’s design and has tried to connect the building harmoniously with its surrounding context. From an architectural point of view, my sense is that it is easily the most attractive of the three projects. The worst features are its height/mass, which are considerably out of scale when compared to nearby buildings, and the size of its TIF request.

What I like most about the third alternative, The Chauncey, is its incorporation of FilmScene and its effort to bring other new activities into the downtown area. Its least-appealing features are that it is designed primarily for upper income users, its overall design is so reflective of one person’s aesthetic judgment, its height and mass are so out of proportion with the building’s context, and its TIF request is so large.

I also think we should have given more consideration to the merits of rezoning the land to CB-10, selling the land to a willing buyer, and letting the market build a project without TIF support.

In the end, however, a clear majority of my colleagues have chosen to go with The Chauncey. I certainly respect the will of the majority, congratulate the winning project team, and will do what I can to make sure it succeeds.

But I think this decision is a mistake.”

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2 Responses to A Development Mistake on the Eastern Edge of Downtown Iowa City

  1. E. Stark says:

    It’s not a mistake. Your colleagues made the right decision. And based on today’s Press-Citizen story, if Michelle Payne recused herself simply for working at MidAmerican, you certainly should have based on your ties to Trinity Episcopal.

  2. jthrog65 says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this. If I had owned or been employed by a business that was located adjacent to, or near, the site, and which would benefit or suffer financially as a result of the development decision, I would have recused myself. Likewise, as the Press-Citizen quoted me as saying in its Jan 23 story, “If I had a financial interest in the church or was a member of any of its governing boards, or took a very active role in trying to shape Trinity’s policies in regard to anything, then I would have automatically recused myself.” And if the City Attorney had advised me to recuse myself due to a conflict of interest, I would have done so. None of these was the case. In the end, the worst one could say is: council member attends church. I can live with that.

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