Riverside Drive presents options


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While a number of high-profile flood-recovery and expansion projects continue to push development across the University of Iowa, one heavily traveled Iowa City corridor is witnessing quite the business exodus.

Riverside Drive, a familiar north-south artery that connects stretches of Highway 1/old Highway 218 from the south city limits to the far stretches of the UI Arts Campus and City Park, is marked as one of the most congested stretches of road in the entire Iowa City area.

The Riverside Drive/Benton Street four-way intersection alone sees more than 23,000 cars each day on average, according to most recent April 22, 2010, traffic-count data.

But recent years have not been particularly kind to the aging corridor.

Both the floods of 1993 and 2008 causes extensive damage, resulting in the loss of restaurants, retail stores, service-oriented businesses, and property values. Remnants of the 2008 flood can still be found near the riverfront and at the former site of Professional Muffler’s original location at the intersection of Benton Street and Riverside Drive, where chunks of dark red brick and weeds still lie.

Across the street, two former gas stations sit vacant, as they have for the past several months.

On Oct. 1, 2012, the city unveiled a draft of the Downtown and Riverfront Crossings areas —a potential artists' district with housing, galleries, studios, potential for both regional and local rail service, and a landscaped promenade on Clinton Street that linking downtown to the new Riverfront Park.

Riverfront Crossings is bordered roughly by Riverside Drive to the west, Gilbert Street to the east, Highway 6 to the south, and Burlington Street to the north.

And while investment has come to the fruition in a new four-story Hampton Inn, Staples, a few restaurants, and automobile-repair shops, a grander concept remains in scope.

UI and city officials say the corridor is a critical link used by commuters, much of the university community, area residents, and the thousands of out-of-town visitors hwo descend on the area for places of employment, Big Ten athletics, the arts, and general tourism.

Karen Howard, an associate city planner, said in recent months, progress has picked up, although no building permit applications had been submitted as of the afternoon of July 19.

“We’ve received a lot of inquiries about improving public property along the river,” she said. “We’re working with the university on studying the river itself and studying ways to improve recreational and safety opportunities.”

Those recreational and safety opportunities include the potential for a white-water rafting course to complement the new Riverfront Park planned at the site of the North Wastewater Treatment plant.

In July 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency provided a $60,000 urban-waters grant to Iowa City to study how modifying the dam will improve the river habitat, flood mitigation, and the revitalization of the Riverfront Crossings District.

Howard said while much of the effort by the city’s part lies in the new parkland, restoration to the nearby Ralston Creek, and wetland habitats are also eyed.

As of now, Howard said, she is not concerned with large tracts of open land or debris, including the former home of the Deery Brothers Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, & Ram of Iowa City.

The UI has historically come under fire for ripping out the historic integrity in structures for campus development in recent years as enrollment continues to rise.

The state Board of Regents approved UI officials’ requests to demolish a 100-year-old house and another house at 15 Melrose Place during a meeting in Cedar Falls in May. The demolished property has since been replaced by a 250-space parking lot for UI Hospitals and Clinics staff and physicians, whose parking has been be displaced by construction of the new Children’s Hospital.

In total, 10 houses owned by the UI were torn down to make room for the parking lot.

And despite the majority of available property, including the former Deery Brothers site, sitting just 0.6 miles south of its College of Law complex, future investment in the area remains up in the air.

In a July 17 interview with UI President Sally Mason was frank on potential expansion and future public-private partnerships with the city.

“I don’t know. It’s a good question,” she said. “We’re always looking around, and we’re always going to stay abreast of what’s happening, and whether there may be opportunities for us, but at this point in time, I’m not aware of any. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

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