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Beck: City Council ignoring opposing views on Moen

BY GUEST COLUMN | JANUARY 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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I’m glad the DI ran a front-page story on Jan.23 about the plans the City Council and Marc Moen have for downtown Iowa City. They will directly affect students’ lives, and it’s in their best interest to be informed about them.

But there is another side to the story, a growing opposition to these plans, which your article didn’t cover.

As noted, Moen has been altering the skyline of Iowa City for more than 10 years. His proposal for the College-Gilbert Street site, a 20-story skyscraper, is only the latest, but it involves the most extreme alteration yet. Many residents are very unhappy about it and are working hard to prevent him and the council from building something that is, in their view, financially irresponsible and seriously out of touch with Iowa City’s values.

At the Dec. 4 City Council meeting, many of these people spoke passionately about the importance of prioritizing sustainability and appropriate scale for the College-Gilbert project, as well as providing a new home for the New Pioneer Co-op.

The councilors listened as one by one they voiced their support for a building that would combine environmentally responsible technology with a size that would complement, not clash with, its surroundings. They listened as supporters of the Co-op explained how important it is that it move to a space larger and less vulnerable to flooding, but close by in order to remain a vital part of the downtown district. And then, two weeks later, the council selected the proposal that least meets all of those criteria.

Moen’s the Chauncey is the tallest, uses the least amount of green technology, and is the only one of the three finalists that does not include the Co-op. The council disregarded the public input it got — from the speakers that night as well as the many who had written like-minded emails, letters, and editorials (including some that appeared in the DI) — and dismissed all consideration of the Co-op, a defining Iowa City institution since 1971, and its more than 26,000 members.

It’s part of a pattern that should concern residents. Just last summer, the council handed Moen $2.5 million in tax-increment financing for his Park @201 building on the Ped Mall against organized opposition.

Petitions calling for a referendum on this loan were circulated, 862 people signed — far more than needed to make the council comply — and the petition was formally presented at its July 10, 2012, meeting. All according to due process — which the council promptly ignored by changing the financing of the loan from general-obligation bonds to revenue bonds, which aren’t subject to the referendum provision.

In other words, it used a technicality to sidestep its obligation to put the matter up for a vote. In retrospect, its disregard for public opinion on that occasion foreshadowed the council’s recent decision, in which it once again ignored the views of those who disagree with it.

This is unacceptable. There are legitimate questions to be asked about Moen’s supersized projects: Do their large-scale designs best suit community needs and are repeated gifts of public tax money to them the wisest of investments? (Of the three final proposals, the Chauncy is the most expensive, requiring $13.5 million in TIF, 25 percent of its total construction costs. The other two builders asked for less money.) These questions are too important to be pushed aside. 

Phil Beck
Iowa City resident


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