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Iowa City ready to unveil riverfront plans

Gregg Hennigan, CR Gazette –

The Floods of 2008 may lead to the rebirth of a riverfront Iowa City neighborhood near downtown that city officials believe is teeming with potential.

For the past three years, city staffers, with the help of consultants and public feedback, have been studying a 278-acre area south of downtown. Ideas include adding a park, housing, commercial buildings and recreation on the Iowa River — all in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

The city will unveil its master plan today for what is now called the Riverfront Crossings District. Worked into that are proposals for downtown Iowa City, which city officials see as being tied to Riverfront Crossings.

“What’s striking about this particular area of the community is how poised it is for redevelopment and how remarkably well situated it is,” Mayor Matt Hayek said. “It’s right on the river. It’s adjacent to downtown. It’s within walking distance to major employers.”

Riverfront Crossings is roughly bordered by Burlington Street on the north, Highway 6 on the south, Gilbert Street on the east and Riverside Drive on the west.

Plans predate flood

The area had been identified as a candidate for redevelopment before the 2008 flood, but those efforts picked up after the Iowa River jumped its banks. The neighborhood is home to a mix of government buildings, student apartments, small business and light manufacturing.

Also there is a city wastewater treatment plant, which flooded in 2008. That plant is being decommissioned, with another plant to the south being expanded to pick up the slack, and a 26-acre park could take its place.

Last year, the city hired HDR Inc. to develop plans for Riverfront Crossings and downtown. The idea is to foster a walkable neighborhood with businesses, housing, and cultural opportunities that complements downtown. It also would mimic some of the characteristics people like about downtown Iowa City, said Bob Miklo, the city’s senior planner.

“The sidewalks are better, there’s buildings up close to the street, there’s good architecture, good landscaping to make an attractive neighborhood,” he said.

There are some zoning proposals in the plan to aid the effort, Miklo said.

Flood buffer

To protect against flooding, the park and other publicly owned open spaces would be closest to the river. Miklo said the city would not encourage development in the flood plain, but if it happens, structures would have to be built above flood levels. A good chunk of the northern section of the neighborhood stayed dry in 2008,

Redevelopment will not occur quickly. The plan sets the vision for the district, with much of the work to be done by private developers project by project. Full build out could easily take 10 to 20 years given the “‘new normal’ with the financial markets,” Jeff Davidson, Iowa City’s planning and community development director, said in an email message.

City Manager Tom Markus said city officials have talked with developers interested in Riverfront Crossings and the hope is those conversations will pick up as the economy improves.

Davidson pointed to plans for a new University of Iowa School of Music, a recently announced hotel project and an apartment building under construction as progress.

Other projects proposed for Riverfront Crossings, including two high-rise buildings and a multiuse parking ramp, have been shelved.

Back in 2009, the city also was hoping to refurbish an old train depot in Riverfront Crossings as part of plans for an Iowa City-to-Chicago passenger rail line. But Gov. Terry Branstad has balked at the annual operating costs, although local supporters have not given up.

Financial options

The city has created a tax increment financing district in part of the neighborhood as a way to give select projects a financial boost, and the City Council is considering a TIF district for the rest of Riverfront Crossings.

The redevelopment of an established neighborhood means some existing buildings would come down, and the conceptual drawings that have been released have some longtime businesses missing.

That includes City Carton Recycling, which opened on the corner of Clinton and Benton Streets in 1967 and has expanded since into an 11.5-acre campus. Part of City Carton is in an area the city envisions as the riverfront park.

CEO Andy Ockenfels said it’s probable City Carton will move at some point, but he said that could be decades from now given the long-term nature of the Riverfront Crossings plan and the company is going about its business as usual.

City Carton is excited about the possibilities for the neighborhood, he said.

Business worries

Laurie Riley has worked in the neighborhood for 20 years, first as an employee and now as owner of Old Capitol Screen Printers, 709 S. Clinton St. She said it could be spruced up and thinks some of the ideas are good, like adding green space.

But she worries about plans for ground-floor retail and offices, noting there are a lot of what she’d call light-manufacturing small businesses such as her store, electricians, glass workers and automobile repair shops in the neighborhood now.

“So I’m kind of wondering what that means for us, if there is going to be room for us,” Riley said.

Miklo said the city will not make any businesses move.

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