Retail wish list should be wary of chain


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Despite its cultural and occasionally alcohol-soaked allure, many students feel that downtown Iowa City lacks a few key amenities — most notably, retail shopping.

The University of Iowa together with the city of Iowa City commissioned a study in 2011 that asked UI students, UI faculty and staff, and Iowa City locals about their shopping habits. The study found that local shoppers value, above all, convenience, selection, and price. The respondents indicated that they were generally more likely to do their shopping in Coralville than Iowa City, but they expressed a desire to see more national retail chains pop up in downtown.

More recently, some UI students told The Daily Iowan that they believe the retail scene in downtown Iowa City is insufficiently diverse.

“When we came here [for Orientation], it seemed like there was a lot [downtown and in Iowa City], but there really isn’t,” UI sophomore Brooklyn Devan told the DI. “There’s no fun alternative to drinking. It’s really a last resort.”

Such complaints about downtown Iowa City’s lack of retail options are usually followed by a comprehensive wish list. The 2011 survey of Iowa City shoppers found locals clamoring for Pottery Barn, the Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Apple Store, Urban Outfitters, Sephora, Forever 21, and J. Crew. In 2013, students told the DI that they’d like to bring Foot Locker, H&M, Express, and Target into the Iowa City fold.

While we agree that downtown Iowa City is short on convenient retail shopping, we do not believe that a massive influx of chain stores is a viable solution to the problem. The students pining for more national chains downtown must understand the existing limitations to potential retail development in such a historic part of town.

First, the cost of retail space (and, thus, the cost of business) in Iowa City is quite high, meaning that national chains have very little incentive to open up shop downtown.

“Retail lease rates are high [downtown],” Jeff Edberg, a local commercial real-estate broker, told the DI. “… Only the right businesses can survive there.”

The high cost of business is rendered doubly unattractive by the availability of cheaper, larger, more modern retail space just up the interstate in Coralville.

A second and, perhaps, much more intractable obstacle for those wishing for a major retail overhaul in Iowa City is the city’s desire to maintain the current character of downtown. In December, the city unveiled its master plan for the downtown and nearby Riverfront Crossings area.

The report cites downtown Iowa City’s locally owned shops and arts scene as the area’s greatest strengths; the plan to improve downtown Iowa City focuses on the strategic use of new development projects to advance local business and the “[preservation] and [enhancement of] the historical integrity of the district.”

The city’s express desire to keep downtown Iowa City a bastion of local business, culture, and history should squash any budding fantasies about a Cheesecake Factory on Washington Street. The complaints about a lack of decent shopping in Iowa City are certainly legitimate, but wishes for more national chains downtown are misguided.

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