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Debate over $40 million Gateway Project continues

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | JULY 12, 2013 5:00 AM

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Contention, confusion, and concern.

Ask any of the nearly three dozen concerned residents, city planners, and members of the Historic Preservation Commission, and they’ll tell you that in their eyes, the $40 million Dubuque Street Gateway Project, more than five years in the making, is anything but settled.

Often described as Iowa City’s “front door,” Dubuque Street sees more than 25,500 cars each day between Interstate 80, downtown, and the University of Iowa campus, according to recent traffic counts.

And although the commission gave the project an initial green light in June, it chose to revisit the issue at a Thursday evening City Hall meeting after a handful of North Side residents requested the decision be rescinded.

“This is new territory for us,” said Ginalie Swaim, the head of the Historic Commission.

Although amounting to more than five hours of PowerPoint presentations, a ceiling-reaching measuring stick, and outcries that the project would be defamation to decades-old homes, trees, and wildlife habitats, commission action was deferred until a later, to-be-decided date.

While city officials tout the project as a key component in reducing future closures on the flood-prone corridor with updating a “structurally deficient” 1950s-built Park Road bridge by elevating the road and bridge 10 to 15 feet, residents claim pieces of local history will forever be lost to dysfunctional and unorganized city planners and engineers who lack a clear vision and details.

Funding streams would include $10.5 million in federal and state dollars, as well as local option sales tax, general obligation bonds, and other revenues.

During all three of the most prominent Iowa River floods, travel on Dubuque Street has been affected.  In 1993, floodwater shut down through traffic for more than 60 days, while 2008 levels saw a 30-day delay. Most recently, in June, it was shuttered for 17 days.

“To me it doesn’t look like the Iowa City I moved to and fell in love with,” said Steve Tannen, who lives at 6 Bella Vista Place. He called proposed plans “expensive” and “destructive.” “It looks like any road you take on the way into Chicago.”

For Joe Coulter, who lives at 1818 N. Dubuque St., the proposal screams of serious safety issues, particularly in regards to access to his home’s garage after the raised roadway would be in place, as well as neighboring destruction to foliage, wildlife, and river views.

His home, named the Jacobsen- Coulter house, is eligible to be named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Although she said she was unsure about the number of trees and historic properties that would be affected by the project, Melissa Clow, the Iowa City engineering special projects administrator, maintained that because Dubuque Street acts as the only proper artery into the north end of town, it must move forward to keep pace with 2040 traffic projections.

She said she remains dedicated in continuing to work with homeowners but that it is imperative that the project move beyond the phase one design process it has been stuck in since 2010.

“With final design comes final landscaping, Clow said. “We’re showing one way of doing it now. It might look different. But we can’t figure that out until we figure out this process.”

Federal mandates prevent any greater roadway expansion, Clow said.

Although originally set for a fall 2014 construction date, Clow said recent hiccups will most likely push any work into two construction periods of 2015 and 2016.

After much debate, the commission deferred decision on the matter until a later date, likely at the end of the month when city planner Bob Miklo returns from vacation.

The public must be notified at least 24 hours in advance of the new meeting.

Pending commission approval, a second, separate archeological-impact study on the results outlined in an environmental assessment could bring submission to the Federal Highway Administration for approval in the form of a Finding of No Significant Impact  report.

All sides did seem to reach one conclusion: The project must move forward in some variation.

“We think we’ve shown the city has taken great adverse effects from moving the roadway away from the properties,” Miklo said about the widely disputed issue of where the adjusted roadway would be positioned.

Bella Vista Place resident Scott McDonough said he understands change will result as Iowa City sees the addition of new residents.

“We’re not anti-growth,” he said. “We’re willing to give up some of our property values for the betterment of the city.”


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