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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