Regents vote to demolish UI Melrose property despite concerns from Melrose neighborhood residents

BY BETH BRATSOS | APRIL 27, 2012 6:30 AM

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CEDAR FALLS — Two houses in Iowa City's historic Melrose neighborhood are set for demolition, but some residents believe the buildings should get more consideration.

The state Board of Regents approved University of Iowa officials' request to demolish a 100-year-old house at 711 Melrose Ave. and another house at 15 Melrose Place during a meeting on Thursday. These houses will be destroyed for the development of a 250-space parking lot for UIHC staff and physicians who will be displaced by the construction of the West Campus Transportation Center and the Children's Hospital.

"There is really no alternative as far as exiting safely from the lot without removing 711 Melrose," said Dave Kieft, strategic initiative coordinator of the UI's business manager office.

But some residents advocating for preserving historical buildings in the neighborhood have spoken out against the Regents' decisions.

Jean Walker, president of the Melrose Neighborhood Association, requested in an email on behalf of the association that regents move the house at 711 Melrose Ave. — listed as a contributing structure on the National Register of Historic Places — to a vacant lot at 311 Melrose Court or another of the UI's vacant properties in the neighborhood.

"[The Melrose Neighborhood Association does] not believe the UI would appreciate if another entity demolished one of its 100-year-old historic houses (or built a parking lot in the midst of its campus) against the wishes of the UI and against the UI's campus master plan," she wrote in an email.

Kieft assured the regents that 711 Melrose is not officially listed as a key property on the registry, though the neighborhood itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The house is in pretty bad condition," he said. "It's been used, for lack of a better word, as a student party house for many, many years. There is broken glass throughout the house, the banister is broken on the stairs. Really, the entire architectural integrity of the house is in jeopardy."

Walker acknowledged in her email that the house and surrounding district do not have a key local historic designation but asked regents to wait until the Historic Preservation Commission finished consideration on assigning such a title.

"We take exception that the house is apparently denigrated in the UI's request for its demolition," she wrote. "Other houses in the Historic District have been used as rental property for students, and this house was described in good enough condition to be included in the National Register in 2004, and there is no apparent significant change in its exterior condition since then."

Regent Robert Downer said he supported Kieft's assessment.

"It was reported, among other things, that the interior of the allegedly historic house was dilapidated, unsafe, had serious health and safety concerns, that it fell far short of any historic standards such as having vinyl siding on exterior," he said. "And as far as I am concerned personally — and I wouldn't speak for anyone else — there was no merit in the claim it was an historic home."

UI spokesman Tom Moore said the demolition of 711 Melrose is a necessary step to move the parking-lot project forward. Officials asked for permission to remove the barn at the back of the property to another location, and Moore said the university is committed to preserving the barn.

"The planning committee has worked closely with the Melrose Neighborhood Association," he said. "We have made a good effort to preserve that house."

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