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City to discuss downtown plans

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | MAY 02, 2011 7:20 AM

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Iowa City business owners know what they want.

Now, it's up to city councilors to decide on their own plans before the two groups collaborate on the future of downtown.

The Iowa City City Council will discuss downtown plans at a work session this evening, focusing on such key issues as student housing, parking, and mixed-use spaces.

"We need a more specific plan," said city planner Jeff Davidson. "There are all these things that are sort of happening in light of the 21-ordinance."

Business owners met last week to discuss their goals for downtown.

The Self-Supported Municipal-Improvement District Committee discussed a plan to "beautify" downtown. The project includes increasing taxes on downtown businesses to fund the hiring of a downtown manager who will handle projects and draw in new businesses.

Business owners and the city have collaborated on some plans.

Karen Kubby, the owner of Beadology Iowa, 220 E. Washington St., said the plans for local business owner Marc Moen to transform the bar space formerly occupied by Vito's into retail and office space is just one example of a parallel initiative between the city and businesses.

By removing a bar and opening up the building to more use, the city is able to improve the value of the area, and business owners can expect more foot traffic.

"A lot of it just depends on developers, but certainly, we need to figure out what our vision is and get any rules or make zoning change to be more restrictive to get that vision to take place," said City Councilor Susan Mims.

Businesses and city councilors said both entities have worked together, and collaborating on downtown plans will only increase that effort.

Bill Nusser, the owner of Hands Jewelers, 109 E. Washington St., said that as an owner of one of the oldest retail stores downtown, this is one of the most exciting times he has seen for the area. But continual communication between the city and business owners is key, he said.

"What makes this different is it's wide-ranging and … it's the most proactive thing that's happened," he said. "A lot of things have been reactive. This is actually planning in action."

As officials look forward to the future of downtown, Davidson said, there are other cities he has looked to in defining what he hopes for Iowa City.

Des Moines' East Village, one of the communities officials looked at, has the increased private market in the area as well as a healthy workforce housing sector, office spaces, and the niche retail in the area — all things Iowa City is capable of having, Davidson said.

And private sector interest is important, said Peter Orazem, an Iowa State University economics professor.

"If it's the city investing, chances are the answer is no, but if it's some kind of partnership with a developer who's interested in doing that, then it's likely to be more sensible," he said.

Though officials are looking to other cities on how to improve, Iowa City is not in a bad spot, Orazem said, noting that Ames looks to Iowa City as an example as it fixes up its downtown.

But not every downtown business owner feels as optimistic about the collaboration between city  and business owners. Benjamin Chait of the Chait Galleries, 218 E. Washington St., said the city ultimately has its agenda.

"When the city wants to do something, it is going to do what it wants," he said.


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