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IC-Chicago rail service may help Riverfront development

BY MITCHELL SCHMIDT | NOVEMBER 05, 2010 7:20 AM

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It's hard not to get caught up in the possibilities: 10-story buildings, sustainable construction, a commuter-train service in Iowa City.

All are potential opportunities for the Riverfront Crossings District — a neighborhood between Burlington Street and Highway 6 and between South Gilbert Street and the Iowa River — that the city has plans to revitalize.

A Omaha-based design firm, HDR, is working with Iowa City officials on the area's redevelopment, starting in the district's southwest corner, said associate city planner Karen Howard. Officials hope the rest of the roughly 30-block are will build on that, she said.

Along with this plan, the recent announcement of a passenger rail service between Iowa City and Chicago in the area has given many high hopes about the potential opportunities for growth in the neighborhood, which was once a lively hub.

"There are a lot of things happening in this area that are a catalyst for redevelopment," Howard said.



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The firm plans to present a design in December to officials and members of the public, she said. The city hired the firm with of the help of a Partnership for Sustainable Communities Brownfields Pilots federal grant — which four other cities, including Boston and Denver, also received.

While the firm's plan will give officials a better vision of the possible changes, the first step is to construct a new wastewater-treatment plant near the south wastewater plant and demolish the north wastewater facility on Kirkwood Avenue. Then, the city will create a greenspace park.

The city has acquired the $63 million needed for the wastewater-treatment plant project, and the transition could take roughly three years, said Jeff Davidson, the city's director of planning and community development.

The recent news of federal funds that will help establish an Iowa City-Chicago Amtrak passenger train have brought high hopes the service will help bring people and money to Iowa City. But more than that, they hope that when passenger service begins, it will spark community growth in an area that has seen only stagnant development.

The area includes the one-story brown brick Wright Street Depot — where the Iowa City-Chicago rail will stop. It is now home to a local law firm.

But until 1974, it saw regular passenger service, and the 1956 and 1958 Hawkeye football teams boarded trains at the deport to head to Pasadena, Calif., for their Rose Bowl appearances. And during the Civil War, trains carried troops in and out of Iowa City.

Now, officials hope to make the 1898 building the center of a community again.
"People are interested in what's happening here," Howard said.

Several business owners in the district expressed interest and even excitement about the possibilities the renovation could entail.

Randy Miller, owner of Mid-West America Commercial Realty, 623 S. Dubuque St., and a few other properties in the district, said renovations could potentially open up accessibility to the area.

"Downtown certainly has a lot of energy, but it's always been kind of landlocked," Miller said. "It would certainly be nice to be able to incorporate [the area] into a much larger focus."

Barb Farnsworth, the owner of Her Soup Kitchen, 625 S. Dubuque St., opened her business a little more than a year ago when the redevelopment plans first surfaced. She said she also hopes input is gathered from both business and property owners in the area.

For now, Howard said, everything is still in the planning process, but it is hard to not get caught up in the possibilities.

"So I think it fits into the picture of where we want Iowa City to go in the future really well, so were pretty excited about it," Howard said.

Tom Gilsenan, the director of Uptown Bill's, 730 S. Dubuque St., said renovation would offer a variety of opportunities for the neighborhood. He hopes community input for the plan will be collected and considered by city officials before any major change takes place.

"You have to make sure their voices are included," he said.


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