Enhancing Iowa City’s Long Term Prosperity and Sustainability: A Progress Report

[Note: This report reflects my own personal summary of key actions Iowa City’s City Council has taken during the first six months of its term. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Iowa City government or City Council as a whole.]

As Mayor of Iowa City, I am pleased to provide this summary of what the City Council has done in the first six months of its term.

Several major public statements, plans, and policies have been presented or adopted in the past half year. They include the Mayor’s State of the City speech on February 16 https://www.icgov.org/news/2016-state-city, a new Strategic Plan https://www.icgov.org/strategicplan, and an amended version of the City Manager’s proposed budget and Capital Improvements Program https://www.icgov.org/budget, the last two of which were adopted on March 1. These documents record our continuing commitment to producing a just, inclusive, and sustainable city.

Responding to City Manager Tom Markus’ decision to accept a position elsewhere, we appointed Assistant City Manager Geoff Fruin as Interim City Manager and promised to decide within 3 months whether to conduct a national search to fill the position. After careful consideration and wide consultation, we voted on June 15 to appoint Geoff Fruin as permanent City Manager. We look forward to working with Geoff over the coming years.

In addition to these important general actions, we have been taking several specific steps to fulfill our Strategic Plan and respond to unexpected events.

Community engagement

Seeking to enhance community engagement and make Iowa City government more open, we have begun televising the work sessions in which much of the Council’s work gets done. We have also begun televising meetings of the Economic Development Committee (EDC) and conducting them in a more accessible public setting. In general, we have sought to create a more welcoming atmosphere at our formal public meetings. You can watch any of the Council’s recent formal meetings and work sessions, including ones mentioned below, on line at: https://www.facebook.com/citychannel4/app/123458464420489/?ref=page_internal

We have also been conducting Listening Posts more frequently and in more diverse parts of the city. In addition, as mayor, I have been conducting monthly “Mayor’s Walks” in various neighborhoods of the city.

Social justice and racial equity

The Council has taken several actions designed to advance social justice and racial equity in Iowa City. Most notably, we have been directly engaging the challenge of improving the affordability of housing within the city, especially for low-to-moderate income households.

On May 3 we amended the City’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) policy as it pertains to new developments that contain 10 or more residential units and which request TIF support from the City. We now require that 15% of those residential units must be affordable.

In our June 21 work session City Manager Geoff Fruin proposed an affordable housing action plan: https://www.icgov.org/affordablehousingactionplan. It included an impressive range of actions, all of which will require extensive public review prior to formal adoption.

On July 5 we adopted a new “inclusionary housing” ordinance for the Riverfront Crossings District. This requires designated types of residential or mixed-use projects to contain a specified percentage of units that are affordable to households whose incomes fall below specified levels.

On that same night, we amended the Zoning Code to create a new land use (Community Service – Long Term Housing). Adoption of this ordinance will enable establishment of a new “Housing First” facility for chronically homeless individuals.

As we were developing these new policies and actions in the spring, some members of our community encountered a trial that speaks to the challenges of affordable housing in Iowa City. Residents of the Rose Oaks apartments were notified that the new owners of the complex wanted them to vacate their apartments at least by the expiration dates of their leases. Although most of the 400 units were already unoccupied, many of the residents who remained were among the most vulnerable in Iowa City. And they confronted a housing market with a vacancy rate of 2% or less.

City government has very limited legal leverage in this kind of individual situation; the owners had a legal right to take the actions they did. We were able to provide funding to Shelter House to help displaced tenants find new housing, and we have strongly encouraged the owners to display greater flexibility. The owners have modified their initial requirements, and have provided some additional financial assistance to Shelter House. We are now considering ways to avoid similar situations in the future, along with the possibility of providing financial assistance directly to displaced residents as we continue to work on policies and plans to help alleviate the pressures on affordable housing in the city.

In addition to challenges of socioeconomic diversity, we have taken some steps toward improving racial equity. Consistent with our Strategic Plan, the City Manager has initiated use of a Racial and Socio-economic Equity Toolkit within five City departments on a one-year trial basis. With our support, the City Manager has also budgeted for a full-time community outreach position in the Police Department.

In an effort to reduce disproportionality in traffic stops, arrests, and searches, we received an update of the “St. Ambrose study” during our work session on April 19. The update revealed that some improvement has occurred over the past 18 months, but that some disproportionality remains.

Several police officers and other city officials attended Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) in San Antonio, where they learned CIT skills to manage potentially volatile situations that involve people who have a serious mental illness, are in crisis, are suicidal, or are emotionally unstable.

And, consistent with our Strategic Plan, City staff has been conducting a series of five well-attended workshops for budding entrepreneurs, including women, immigrants, and persons of color.

Much more needs to be done to improve racial equity in our city, especially in light of recent events in other parts of the nation. We will be considering the possibility of creating an ad hoc committee on social justice and racial equity. And the topic of racial equity will be high on the agenda when candidates for the position of Police Chief are being recruited and interviewed.

A vibrant and walkable urban core

Another important challenge is to make Iowa City a more walkable and bikeable city, and thereby to develop the local economy while also maintaining the city’s distinctive character and sense of place.

We took one significant step in this direction on July 5 when we directed the staff to begin developing a new Form Based Code (FBC) for two specific parts of the city: the southern part of the city, especially around Alexander Elementary, and existing neighborhoods that are most directly impacted by the University. By using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for regulating development, a FBC is much more likely that conventional zoning to produce neighborhoods that are healthy, inclusive, and walkable, and to ensure that new projects are compatible with the character of existing neighborhoods.

For advice on this topic, we invited Dan Parolek (a nationally-recognized architect/urbanist) to discuss how to build such neighborhoods. You can view his May 24 “Missing Middle” presentation under “Categories” and then “Community” at: https://www.facebook.com/citychannel4/app/123458464420489/

After reviewing the results of a traffic modeling study on May 17, we authorized the staff to convert Madison and Clinton Streets to 3 lanes with bike lanes on both sides. We also directed staff to conduct further analysis and public outreach pertaining to possible changes on Gilbert, Market, and Jefferson Streets.

Environmental sustainability

No city can thrive unless it is sustainable environmentally. On June 6 we instructed the Staff to prepare a new ordinance requiring recycling in multi-family buildings, to begin collecting household organic wastes at the curbside, to move toward single-stream recycling, to ban cardboard from the landfill, and to ban single-use plastic bags.

As authorized by the Council, I signed the “Mayors Compact” on Climate Change, and on July 19 we will consider setting a goal for carbon emission reductions. Also on that date we will consider appointing a Climate Change Task Force to recommend how the goal can best be achieved, and we will consider approving a significant carbon emission reduction project for Fiscal Year 2016-17.

A strong and resilient local economy

Iowa City’s economy is thriving, and we have taken several actions to ensure it continues to thrive in a sustainable and inclusive way. The FY17 budget we adopted in March reduced the property tax levy for the 5th consecutive year and enables Iowa City to maintain its Moody’s Aaa bond rating.

In late May, the City sold the former St. Patrick’s Church parking lot to the developer of “The Rise at Linn and Court.” This sale includes $1 million for the City’s affordable housing fund.

 We have approved rezoning of the Unitarian-Universalist Church site and City parking lot, as well as approved conditional sale of the parking lot, to enable construction of a new building (with rowhouses on the north side) while also preserving the church building.

Although some of us opposed “The Chauncey” in the past, the Council is fully honoring the City’s contractual commitments toward that project. The same is true for all other development projects for which development agreements have been signed.

We have authorized the City Staff to proceed with several major construction projects, including The Gateway, Washington Street from Clinton to Linn, and the Pedestrian Mall.

We have also initiated a process for considering possible amendments to our overall TIF policy, and for making the decision process much more transparent. This is one key reason why we started televising meetings of the EDC.

On April 19 adopted a new ordinance that permits Uber and other “Network Companies” to provide service in Iowa City, and just a few weeks later we amended the taxicab ordinance to level the playing field.

We chose not to commit $50,000 to the Downtown District for hiring a fundraiser for a proposed art project on the Ped Mall (“The Lens”). And we voted 4-3 not to support a proposed 14-story building at 7 N. Linn Street.

Long story short

We have had a very busy and productive first 6 months. We look forward to working with Iowa Citians and all others who want to enhance the city’s long-term prosperity and sustainability, and to extend that prosperity to all the residents of our great city.

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