In Favor Of Disrupting The Development Model
About a month ago, someone over on the Iowa City subreddit posed an interesting question: Why wasn't Iowa City able to develop the east and south sides of town in the 90s and the 00s in the same way as Coralville and North Liberty?
You can click the link to all the answers, but this was my answer:
The Coral Ridge Mall opened up and shifted the center of gravity for commercial activity out towards 80/380. Iowa City took about a decade to come up with something resembling an answer to that and arguably still hasn't, even as Coralville continues to run rings around Iowa City by developing areas like IRL, and North Liberty is getting in on that as well. Honestly, the SSMD the South District just launched and the work they're doing with the Diversity Marketplace and that whole area is the smartest thing that Iowa City has done in years and it was a ground-up idea, not one the City really got behind because the powers that be didn't want too. The commercial activity supercharged development out in Coralville and North Liberty in a major way. Iowa City is just starting to catch up now.
The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that there was much more to the question than I originally thought. A lot of what I'm about to hypothesize is largely that: a hypothesis. It might have no basis in reality whatsoever, but it's largely based on my impression of how development is driven in Iowa City and more importantly, by whom. My firm belief: someone needs to disrupt Iowa City's current development model. When I say 'disrupt' I mean, come in and start building and investing quite literally anywhere other than downtown Iowa City.
I mean, I get it: the impulse is always going to lend itself to developing a vibrant downtown. I'm fine with that- but only to a point. Because with the development of downtown has come a certain amount of gentrification. When I was growing up, there was a Hardees, a Burger King, a Rocky Rococo's, Arby's, a Great American Deli, and a Pizza Hut at various locations downtown. I'm not saying we need to double down on chains and bring back brand names because I know there are people in the community who don't like chains and that's fine, but amongst the great and the good and yes, the champagne liberals that have the money and the power in Johnson County, they want their downtown to look and have a certain feel. I get that. But the problem is that the circle of those people and the circle of people who live and work here and maybe don't have quite as much money or power is that those two circles don't overlap when it comes to downtown.
For a very long time, downtown Iowa City wasn't designed for everyone. I don't think it was a deliberate choice on the city's party and I think they've started to change that-- certainly, one hour of free parking helps, but things like the Block Party, the movies in the park down by the Chauncey-- the quality and quantity of events has improved over the past decade or so, but we still need to break out of of a primarily downtown focused model.
Oh, you don't think it's overly downtown-focused? Consider this: when plans for development at the corner of Washington and Linn fell through, residents started to advocate for converting it to an open-air park. I don't hate that idea- though I would rally to bring back the old Ped Mall fountain and use it as a centerpiece of the park, but it underlines my point. In a city and a county where housing prices are amongst the most expensive in the state and not even a block away from the already existing Black Hawk Mini-Park and Pedestrian Mall, people want a new park, instead of housing. There are a plethora of student fishtanks already going up, so I can understand if people are getting tired of them, but if more student fishtanks in and around downtown open up potential housing in the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to downtown, I'm in favor of them.
(I have no idea if that's actually true or not-- it would seem to make sense, but I haven't seen any hard data backing that up.)
In all the nationwide debates over housing, there's always going to be some people resistant to change. The city was considering changes to the housing code- but they're slowing down that process in the face of community concerns-- I don't know if I could call them organized opposition yet, but there is a touch, a spicy bouquet of NIMBYism about some of them. I think some form of them will always go through eventually. While I wouldn't stand behind reflexive opposition to any changes in housing and zoning rules, concerns about Student Fishtanks aren't entirely worthy of dismissal- even though, to me, I think we'll see less and less of those over the course of the next five to ten years as the University approaches the higher ed enrollment cliff that's expected to kick in around 2025-2026.
The market for the big Student Fishtanks could be getting oversaturated as it is. Some of it isn't bad: the Riverfront West Development is actually an interesting project from a design perspective and seems like a refreshing way to densify apartment complexes. I don't know if the finished product will match what we see on the design specs, but if it does, it's a potential blueprint for redevelopment of the old-style apartment complexes if anyone wants to go that way. You could do a lot of development along the top of Benton Hill if you wanted to and densify that a bit, for example, there's potential there, but I think the real test of how viable future Fishtanks will be is if we see redevelopment along Benton Street or if the plan for the Pentacrest Garden Apartments- which was around pre-COVID but seems to have dropped off the radar now goes forward. You don't need to Fishtank everything. You can live a pretty good existence with well-maintained apartment complexes, even if some of them do start to show their age.
But if we're reaching capacity for Student Fishtanks and depending on the impacts the enrollment cliff has on the University, the center of economic activity could shift towards the southeast side of town if the University shrinks over time. Whether it will do so in an impactful way, I don't know- because the Hospital isn't going anywhere, but the way forward is becoming clearer all the time: district-focused development is the way to go.
It doesn't even have to be top-down development. The South District and its SSMD are a good example of local business owners and neighborhood folks getting together to work to improve their district. But if you want city-led district-focused development, the Northside and the Riverfront Crossings District are two good examples of its potential.
The Northside has its own character, its own events, and its own aesthetics. Yes, people are nervous about what's going to happen to Mercy. There are whispers that a local developer is the second bidder in the auction and that it might not stay a hospital. Even if UIHC does get it, there's no guarantee they want all of Mercy's footprint. There's an opportunity for expansion for the northside neighborhood as I'm sure that whatever goes in there, there will be possibilities for more housing, more retail, and more places to eat, as I'm sure employees and/or patients will get hungry from time to time.
Riverfront Crossings is more of a work in progress and I think needs some more action on the east side of Gilbert Street to really take off, but the park and the development in and around the County Administration building show the potential of that emerging District.
The city has comprehensive plans in place for multiple districts- so it's not like the concept is an alien one we've got to introduce people to. What's needed, I think, is the vision and money for someone to come in and disrupt the development model as it currently stands. To go and take visions put down on paper in the planning process and turn them into reality. Eastdale Plaza could use a makeover. You could take a good chunk of Sycamore Mall's parking lot and do something with it-- if for no other reason than to more efficiently use the space. There are possibilities aplenty on the east and southeast sides of Iowa City. We just need developers willing to take the chance and break out of downtown.