Downtown Iowa City building renovation program awards more than $1.3 million for improvements

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | MAY 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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Tattered awnings, chipped façades and leaky windows are evidence that the nearly 280 businesses n downtown and the North Side Marketplace have witnessed a lot of wear and tear in the last few decades.

But a newly introduced incentive program spearheaded by the Iowa City Downtown District hopes to change all that by offering building renovation grants as part of the city’s 2012 strategic plan. 

During an April 17 meeting, the Economic Development Committee approved roughly $197,000 — ranging from $8,028 to $47,704 toward projects that will vary in cost — for the Building Change program.

In all, 16 businesses submitted funding applications.

Representatives from the city’s Urban Planning, Economic and Community Development, and Housing and Inspection Departments formed a committee to determine which projects would create the biggest aesthetic impact.

The city awarded funding to Bo-James, Atlas, Quinton’s Bar & Deli, Panchero’s Mexican Grill, Chait Galleries Downtown, Active Endeavors, Yacht Club, and the Grossix Building.

Wendy Ford, the city’s economic-development coordinator, said individual business investment reveals the confidence in downtown Iowa City.

“The window into the community is the downtown,” she said. “When downtown looks good aesthetically, it’s a great attractor for many different sectors of our economy. It’s certainly not a place that looks the same from one place to the next.”

Ford said all improvements must be completed by November. 

Excluding work on the Grossix Building and Chait Galleries Downtown, more than $1.3 million has been awarded in façade, entryway, window, fire-safety, and upper-level renovations.

The city has eyed a number of second- and third-floor spaces for conversion into commercial space or workforce housing.

Nancy Bird, the director of the Iowa City Downtown District, believes along with building maintenance, the undertakings are meant to ensure that all buildings comply with modern safety codes.

“We’re doing a lot of outreach and prospects with different properties down here that are available and making sure that we are connecting the dots,” she said. “When you combine the improvements to the façades, parking meters, and the Ped Mall, we’re going to really demonstrate to the community that we’re keeping up with the times, and there is renewed interest in the area.”

To downtown developer Marc Moen, the vitality of the city’s core also results in positive gains for the University of Iowa.

“Downtown is a big deal for the university and is a big recruiting tool too,” he said. “Iowa City is a unique place, and we’re just so fortunate to have a successful downtown and a university that wraps itself around downtown.”

Moen, whose company the Moen Group owns nine prominent buildings downtown, said the Building Change program is crucial because it encourages surrounding investment.

Tracy Hightshoe, the city’s community development planner, echoed Moen’s notion of a resulting “domino effect” and said although not a permanent venture, a two- to three-year cycle will bring about much-needed historic preservation, all the while pushing development south of Burlington Street after the central business district is refreshed.

“A lot of these buildings are from the 1800s to 1900s and are in the need of significant rehab,” she said. “… These business owners have been wanting to do this, although it doesn’t always translate to their bottom line.”

Chait Galleries Downtown owner Benjamin Chait said he is pleased with current progress from the newly formed initiative.

“It was a really short window of opportunity, and [businesses] acted fairly quickly,” he said. “I think things are moving in a reasonable direction, and the kinds of things [the city] is doing, I think, will take time to play out.”

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