Historic Preservation Commission gives Gateway the green light


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The notion of self-described “new territory” for one local commission wasn’t enough to stop a recommendation for motions to push a controversial $40 million Iowa City roadway and flood-protection project forward for what many dub the city’s “front door.”

During a special meeting Thursday evening, the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission voted 7-1 for the Dubuque Street Gateway Project to begin a still lengthy, and undetermined construction process.

Pam Michaud of the College Green Historic District voted against the action, while at-large board member Frank Wagner abstained, citing a conflict of interest.

The project, more than five years in the making, has been at the center of contentious, confusing, and concerning examinations for city planners and residents as Iowa’s fifth largest city continues to wrestle with flood-recovery measures and a growing population.

In June, the commission gave the project the initial green light but on July 11 chose to revisit the issue following the response by a handful of North Side residents and their request to block the issue.

During that session, Ginalie Swaim, the head of the Historic Commission, maintained that the group, synonymous with encouraging and designating historic properties, is new to the transportation game, calling it “new territory.”

While staying firm to the park-like setting, 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.

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

Although originally set for a fall 2014 construction date, the project likely will begin in two construction periods of 2015 and 2016.

City planner Bob Miklo said no historic structures themselves would be directly affected by the altered street.

But given the scope and that the Dubuque Street has flooded significantly three times in the last 20 years, Melissa Clow, the Iowa City engineering special-projects administrator, said changes are inevitable.

“It’s very hard to do some large roadway project without having some impact,” she said. “And at this point, this is a very large project.”

According to recent traffic counts, Dubuque Street sees more than 25,500 cars each day between Interstate 80, downtown, and the University of Iowa campus.

And while public comment was denied during the meeting, opposition by several commission members ran rampant at times.

Commission member Pam Michaud questioned the reconstruction of the roadway, notably a 15-foot retaining wall, when comprehensive Iowa River flood-impact studies for the UI campus and the Riverfront Crossings District have yet to be completed.

“I think the scale and scope of the construction process is somewhat under described,” she said.
“It will be thousands of trips of dump trucks, and there aren’t going to be any woods left.”

Clow said because she remains unfamiliar with all of the projects that the UI is undertaking, and as plans are still tentative, she couldn’t comment on the effect.

Throughout discussions, commissison member David McMahon of the Longfellow Historic District said individuals should have faith in the actions by the City Council, stressing the limited role of the commission.

Higher river levels than the 2008 flood were recorded in 1851, 1918, and 1988, Clow said.

While the Federal Highway Administration is the final decision maker on the project, it will take into consideration the commission’s recommendation.

Further discussion will now be directed to the City Council.

With the adjusted roadway, Clow said the safety of UI students will increase significantly, because they will have a 6- to 8-foot-wide sidewalk on the east side, including in front of Mayflower Residence Hall, and to several fraternity houses.

Discussions with Pi Kappa Alpha, Beta Theta Pi, and Phi Delta Theta fraternities began in March 2011, Clow said, noting that the respective property owners of the chapters have been understanding and approve the reconstruction.

But for Katie Cummins, who endured the 2008 flood as a Mayflower resident, contentions remain. While losing her bicycle in floodwater, she said more pressing issues are now tied with her parents return to Iowa City after a 30-year absence and purchasing a home at 12 Bella Vista Place.

While she and mother Laurie Cummins agree that changes need to come to protect from future flooding, the question is at what cost.

“It seems like a drop in the bucket,” Katie Cummins said. “Once you cut down those trees, you’ll just have a blanket of retaining walls.”

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