Historic Landmark Designation for 2 Small Cottages?

Background Note: At its formal meeting on the night of February 9, 2015, the City Council of Iowa City decided not to give historic landmark designation to two small working class cottages on S. Dubuque St. The cottages are located just a few blocks south of the city’s downtown. Needing a super-majority (6-1) to be approved, the proposal obtained 3 votes in favor and 4 against, and hence was defeated. The underlying story is long and complicated. For now, all I want to do is post the notes I relied upon when stating my rationale for supporting the designation.

Why the Cottages Should Receive Historic Landmark Status

It’s easy to construct this controversy in stark either/or terms: development vs. preservation, property rights vs. public values, us vs. them, good vs. bad.

This stark construction has led to increasing polarization and to increasingly personal attacks on individuals. This does not serve us well.

It would be better to work together to resolve our shared problem, to treat everyone with respect, and not to attack or demean any of the individuals involved.

With this in mind, I want to acknowledge the owner’s health concerns. Having experienced a similar problem myself, I know how distressing such difficulties can be. I also want to express my respect for his son’s spirited guest opinion piece in the Press-Citizen.

As I see it, three major questions must be answered with regard to the proposed landmark rezoning. Would the rezoning violate the owner’s property rights? Have preservation advocates disrupted the process by intervening at “the 11th hour”? And are the cottages significant enough historically to warrant preservation?

Rights of the owner

Several people have condemned the ways in which the owners’ property rights have been trampled upon. There is some truth in what they say. The owner does in fact have several important rights.

Most important, the owner has a right to use his property in a manner consistent with existing zoning, which is Community Commercial 2, and he has a right to apply for a rezoning.

Moreover, the owner of the property does have, and has had for the past 18 years, the right to demolish the buildings. But he can demolish them only if doing so would not violate contractual obligations to his tenants or any other legal constraints on the use of his property.

However, ownership does not entail the right to have his land rezoned to whatever he wants, or to have it rezoned without conditions. Ultimately this rezoning decision must be made by the City Council, which represents the people of the city.

Nor does the owner have an inherent right to benefit from the possible 5- or 10-fold increase in the value of his property that would result from a rezoning to RFC-CX. This potential increase in value has not been produced by any investments the owner has made to improve the property. It has instead been produced by very recent public action, especially the City’s adoption of its new Form Based Code and the density bonuses that it permits.

Furthermore, the owner does not have the right to decide, by himself, whether or not the buildings on his property should be designated as historic landmarks. Again, this is a decision for the City Council to make.

But the owner does have the right to object to a proposed designation. As is his right, the owner has filed a petition, which has the legal effect of requiring a super-majority of the Council to vote for the landmark designation in order for it to take effect.

If, in the future, the owner applies for rezoning to RFC-CX, there is no guarantee that the request would be approved. But the owner could preserve the cottages and then use the resulting density bonus or else sell it to another landowner in the District.

11th hour intervention

The diverse publics of Iowa City also have rights, rights that belong to people who live in a democracy. The most important right they have is to express their concerns, advocate what they value, and have their voices heard.

In this case, the publics’ concerns are focused on three, now two, small working class cottages, which have stood on that ground for roughly 140 years.

Did preservation advocates express their concerns about these cottages at the “11th hour”? To a degree, I’d say, yes, they did.

But this “11th hour” objection overlooks the fact that the staff, the owner, and a potential developer had been engaged in private discussions about the property’s redevelopment for a few months prior to the possibility ever being revealed to the public.

As best I can tell, preservation advocates were neither privy to, nor notified of, these discussions even though the Riverfront Crossings Plan explicitly states, “preservation of these structures should be a goal.”

Consequently, preservation advocates were shocked to be told at “the 11th hour” that those cottages would be demolished. And they were stunned to see one of the cottages torn down before 8 a.m. on the day after Christmas.[1]

As an elderly neighbor of mine who has lived in Iowa City for almost 50 years said, “This is not how we do things in Iowa City.”

Are the cottages historically significant enough to warrant preservation?

Despite being compelled to intervene at “the 11th hour,” Friends of Historic Preservation and others have amply documented that the cottages embody a uniquely important part of Iowa City’s history and identity. The State Historic Preservation Office, Preservation Iowa, our Historic Preservation Commission (unanimously), and our Planning and Zoning Commission (7-0) have all recommended designation.

And by intervening when they could, advocates did precisely what we should want them to do: they drew our attention to the value of Iowa City’s history and some of the built structures that embody that history.

This does not mean that we should do exactly what they advocate. But it does mean we should respect their right to promote what they value.

In brief, the owner does have many rights, but he does not have the right to do just anything he wants with his land. And his rights are not being trampled upon. Preservation advocates did intervene at a late hour, but they had no other choice. And the record amply documents the case for preserving the cottages.

With these thoughts in mind, I will be voting yes on the proposed rezoning.

Other Council members might vote differently. Regardless of how we vote tonight, however, the underlying conflict will remain. And it is likely to become increasingly polarized and virulent unless we find a satisfactory way to resolve the conflict.

The way out begins with everyone understanding that, first, the owner does not have a right to have his property rezoned to RFC-CX without conditions; second, the cottages face a perilous future unless the owner chooses not to demolish them; and third, our shared lives together will be worse if we don’t collectively invent a mutually satisfactory solution.

[1] The “11th hour” objection also seems to presume that everybody in this city can and should be paying very close attention to every specific action that appears on the agendas of the City’s boards, commissions, and council.

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