Planning for downtown streetscape improvements begins

BY EMMA WILLIS | JUNE 27, 2013 5:00 AM

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The community should become a direct decision-maker in a new project to update Iowa City’s downtown streetscape and public spaces, local and national officials say.

But that update shouldn’t come without maintaining the historic and traditional integrity of the downtown and North Side Marketplace in a new master plan.

During the first of three public meetings at the Iowa City Public Library, community members, business owners, city officials, and consultants gathered Wednesday evening, seeking to develop a blueprint of the future look of downtown spaces.

Inspire Downtown, the brainchild of the city, the Downtown District, and various community outlets, is helping to spearhead these initiatives.

Several different boards laid out throughout the room allowed the nearly 80 attendees to share their ideas by either placing a sticky note with a written comment, or putting a small dot in a list to prioritize a certain streetscape component based on their opinion.

And while the majority of respondents agreed to the notion that the Weatherdance Fountain stage was their favorite Pedestrian Mall aspect, the intersection of Washington and Dubuque Streets, near the Jefferson Building,  was the least appealing.

Discussions of future plans included ways to make the Pedestrian Mall more “green,” more accessible, and more attractive to the public.

Project GREEN Co-President Cindy Parsons took the opportunity to share her ideas on how to make Iowa City more environmentally friendly.

“I think it’s critical,” she said. “We need to maintain the green spaces,” noting that concerns with the transient population downtown needs to be addressed.

As part of the yearlong process, the city has hired both the Des Moines-based Genus Landscape Architects and the Denver-based studioINSITE planning firm to consult on the project.

Over the past six weeks, the firms have worked together, undergoing site assessment and data collection.

Dennis Rubba of studioINSITE said the community involvement is extremely important for project.

“It’s their downtown,” he said. “The more they are aware the better the result.”

Taking the onlookers through his 16 principles of a great streetscape, Rubba said the community should consider current context.

With Iowa City having such a historical and eclectic city structure, he said planners should remain authentic to the unique culture of the city found in the two districts.

“This isn’t about redesign,” he explained. “It’s about enhancing, preserving, and protecting the downtown.”

Though the budget for the final project is undetermined at this time, the consultation costs, approved by City Council, stand at $258,500 out of a general obligation bond.

Assistant to the City Manager Geoff Fruin said officials will begin the budget process this fall to identify cost for the project.

Though the goal is to begin work in 2014, he said, they may see delays because of the business population.

With project startup and information gatherings set to end this month, the coming month will provide the greatest time for a flow of ideas with two upcoming meetings.

Fruin said a closed meeting held for business owners Wednesday morning brought approximately 30 representatives to discuss the future.

The plan is to have three concept ideas drawn out at the beginning of fall, with a final decision set for mid-November, with the final planning coming to a close January 2014.

With an opportunity to further develop the downtown and Pedestrian Mall, business will have to plan on the potential of construction affecting their traffic flow.

Rubba said they have been working closely to ensure businesses in the two districts are well engaged in the process.

“Life of the downtown is life of the business,” he said. “A strong business is a strong downtown.”

With plenty of feedback hitting both the website and meeting notes, much emphasis was placed on the entrance to the Ped Mall at Washington and Dubuque Streets.  

Because of the homeless population “covering” the “gateway” to the Ped Mall, Willa Dickens, a co-owner of Herteen & Stocker Jewelers, 101 S. Dubuque St., said he feels uncomfortable when he passes that area.

“If this is the first thing you see, nobody will want to enter,” he said. “They discourage business.”

Although he said the homeless population may be there through no fault of their own, the entrance to the unique downtown infrastructure should be a clean and bright area to enjoy.

Yet he remains skeptical that the particular corner will see any aesthetic change or the movement of the homeless population.

“These planners,” he said about the consultants. “They always have their ideas.”

But for Rubba, the homeless issue doesn’t appear to be an obstacle of the development of downtown.

“I see it as an opportunity,” he said. “[The streetscape plan] should engage everyone and not be exclusive to their needs.”

And although it’s a is newly launched initiative, those interested in giving their feedback on the future of downtown have just 58 days to interact on the Inspire Downtown website, by way of sending in pictures, posting comments, and voting for what they like or dislike about the streetscape plan.

Although more than 100 accounts have been created with more than 30 submitted ideas and more than 630 views, Fruin said the conversation is just beginning.  

“We want to continue to reach people,” he said.

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