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Neighbors worry about possible UI expansion

Diane Heldt, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa –

The University of Iowa has spent more than $6.3 million on dozens of tenant properties since 2001, the majority of them in the Melrose Avenue area near University Hospitals and Clinics.

Of the 40 tenant properties owned by the university, 27 are single-family style residences, and all but five of those are in the Melrose Avenue Neighborhood, which is marked by Melrose Avenue on the north and railroad tracks on the south and west.

Some residents say they worry about the university’s long-term plans for the neighborhood. The Melrose Neighborhood Association expressed concerns about the UI’s recent purchase of two more properties and the plan to tear down numerous UI-owned rentals to make way for a surface parking lot south of Melrose Avenue.

UI officials say recent purchases have been in a concentrated area of the neighborhood, on the west edge of it directly south of Kinnick Stadium and University Hospitals. And the UI has bought properties that, for the most part, already were rentals, Doug True, UI senior vice president for finance and operations, said.

“As these rental properties have come up, we’ve acquired them for temporary uses with the idea that long-term the land would be controlled by the university,” he said. “With the exception of the (parking) plan we just came out with … there’s no other vision for that area.”

There is a fear that more properties will be purchased and torn down to make way for university structures, said Jean Walker, a Lucon Drive resident who has been the Melrose Neighborhood Association representative for 10 years.

A portion of the neighborhood was placed on the National Historic Register in 2004, though once a property is purchased by the UI the city has no control over what happens to a structure designated as historic, Walker said.

“For some decades the neighborhood has been regarded as fragile, and vulnerable to the expansion plans of the UI,” Walker said via email. “Even if the UI does not demolish the historic homes, their purchase of them for use as day cares or other institutional uses disrupts the integrity of the neighborhood as a residential area and creates ‘dead’ areas, particularly at night.”

The planned parking lot, approved by the state Board of Regents in December, is the only thing on the drawing board for the neighborhood, True said. The lot will be built where 1-8 Melrose Place now stands and on the south portion of the 711 Melrose Avenue property, which now is a private parking lot for 85 cars.

True said the university wants to work with the neighborhood. For example, one neighbor is involved in the design process for the parking lot, he said, to make sure it accommodates the UI’s needs but also “protects the more sensitive neighborhood to the east.”

In making purchases, the UI looks for properties adjacent to campus that are in strategic locations for possible future campus or hospital expansion, said David Kieft, assistant university business manager.

The Melrose-area houses and apartments owned by the UI are among the university’s 40 current tenant properties. The university paid nearly $7.2 million for those 40 properties, with the earliest purchase in 1948.

The university brings in gross annual income of about $838,000 from those properties, but those earnings pay for maintenance and upkeep, the contract with a property management company and large-scale costs like roof and furnace replacements.

The money also helps maintain other houses in the area used as university cultural or academic centers, such as the Latino/Native American Cultural Center and the College of Law Admissions Building, both located in UI-owned houses on Melrose Avenue.

The university contracts with Heritage Property Management, at $2,265 per month, to manage the tenant properties.

The UI, like many universities, uses some of its tenant houses for visiting scholars or new faculty when they first arrive in town. UI officials prefer to rent the properties to faculty, staff or graduate and professional students, rather than undergraduates, University Business Manager George Hollins said.

UI history professor Shelton Stromquist lived in a UI-owned rental house in the Melrose neighborhood for one year after he arrived in 1982. He and his wife liked the neighborhood so much, they bought a house on Myrtle Avenue, where they’ve lived for 30 years. So Stromquist said he understands the university’s desire to provide that service to faculty. But he, like some of his neighbors, worries about the UI’s long-term plans.

“There is this sense that we’re a pretty vulnerable neighborhood, and it’s a neighborhood that has some history to it and there’s some very nice properties that we want to preserve,” he said.

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