Councilors discuss plans to revamp downtown

BY EMILY HOERNER | MAY 03, 2011 7:20 AM

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Balancing all of downtown Iowa City's housing options and retail and office space will likely be a priority in coming years, Iowa City city councilors said Monday.

During a City Council work session Monday night, the councilors worked to lay out priorities in their quest to revamp downtown with a 21-ordinance and fewer bars.

Iowa City Planning and Development Director Jeff Davidson said the issue of redevelopment — brought up by downtown business owners — is important because of the changing downtown landscape.

"There's a lot of things that are starting to come to life in terms of downtown," he said. "The economy is recovering, banks are getting a little looser with money."

Davidson also said the 21-ordinance has encouraged the conversion of bar spaces into other types of businesses. Today, councilors will discuss possible replacement businesses for the recently closed bar Vito's, 118 E. College St.

The Planning and Zoning Commission pitched a list of eight issues facing downtown in hopes of getting feedback about which are most important to the council, Davidson said.

City Councilor Regenia Bailey said business owners have shown interest in improving downtown, and she noted that there's a need for more office space.

The council expressed hopes for creating more mixed-use — residential and office space — buildings, as well as more owner-occupied buildings.

"The private sector is interested in development, and redevelopment is quite strong, and this mixed-use concept is definitely part of that trend," said Mayor Matt Hayek. "It will help us with balance and quality of office space, which is lacking."

The council also addressed the increasing number of housing units made specifically for students downtown. Hayek said downtown has seen positive results in owner-occupied housing instead of large units housing mainly students.

"I think we have to be careful that we say we don't want students living downtown," said Councilor Connie Champion.

Other councilors agreed, and Davidson responded saying the plan shouldn't be viewed as "anti-student" because it is a goal conducive with the university.

Councilors also discussed finding ways to protect historic buildings, exploring height requirements imposed by the airport, diverting traffic from Burlington Street, and turning Washington into a two-way street. They decided to look further into all the items.

Davidson also presented the issue of parking, which he described as a continuing problem.

Businesses are required to provide parking spaces for residents and businesses downtown now, he said.

"There are instances where development downtown couldn't possibly provide parking," Champion said. "We can't just keep building parking ramps."

The councilors requested further information from the staff before making any decisions on about downtown's direction.

Robert Miklo, a senior planner, said he hopes changes could be seen as early as this summer.

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