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Wahls: Iowa City Rising

BY ZACH WAHLS | SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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On Monday, The Daily Iowan reported that local developers have again turned their eyes to downtown Iowa City with plans to potentially bring yet another high-rise to our skyline. Currently, concerned citizens are trying to delay the Chauncey, a high-rise that has been approved by the city but lacks a firm timeline. Despite the obstruction, however, most residents should agree that Iowa City — as with nearly all other urban environments — is better served by concentrated, high-rise development in downtown.

The upsides (pardon the pun) are clear and well-documented. There is a reason, after all, that New York City has been recently heralded as one of the greenest cities in America. (As if New Yorkers needed something else to be smug about …) On the environmental side, building up instead of out reduces the need for motor transportation, reducing per capita carbon footprints. It should be no surprise that taking the stairs and walking a block or two generates less carbon than driving to your closest Fareway or Hy-Vee.

Given the structure of Iowa City’s public-transportation system, with all routes starting and ending downtown, the more we have going on downtown, the better. It’s all the more incentive to use the bus, which, if you haven’t seen the somewhat snarky bumper sticker, takes dozens of cars off the road. And what about less parking congestion and lower carbon emissions? Pretty hard to argue with that.

Beyond environmental factors, there are also social and economic reasons to support concentrated development downtown. The Plaza Towers and the Chauncey both feature top-shelf upscale housing. Anyone concerned with the proliferation of bars downtown should welcome the potential boost to retail that more well-to-do residents could offer and that such high-rise buildings attract. In certain situations, some might cry “Gentrification,” given the current blend of residents in the area, but disruptive gentrification isn’t a serious concern.

On the economic side, it is critical to note that these planned high-rises would bring more premium office space to downtown. More high-quality office space attracts businesses to the area and more importantly, brings their employees, too.

We’ve already seen this downtown and in the very recent past, when the University of Iowa single-handedly breathed new life into the Old Capitol mall. (Anyone remember Planet X?) With 1,000 employees now spending their lunch hours and commutes closer to downtown, foot traffic is up, and the mall is doing better than ever. And even though we’re starting to hear whispers of a Sycamore Mall-area renaissance — and as a Muscatine Avenue resident, my fingers are crossed — downtown remains the economic driver in our town. 

There are, of course, some downsides. Development isn’t always great, and it sometimes has unintended consequences. I know I’m not the only one who was deeply saddened by the closing of the Red Avocado. Although that situation was certainly different from the ones we’re looking at today, we should certainly keep in mind the prices we pay for new construction.

We should furthermore remain cautious about spending too much city money on redevelopment.

Development, after all, is a for-profit business, and those who are willing to risk their treasure on large-scale projects are often rewarded handsomely. While tax-increment funding (or TIF) can be helpful in the short run, over the long term, there are potentially dangerous consequences for taxpayers, residents, and anyone else who has a stake in the fiscal strength of our community.

We advance best when progress and skepticism go hand in hand. Progress without skepticism is dangerous, and skepticism without progress is pointless. It’s good that people are involved in these decisions and are offering their points of view in the public sphere. Yet, unless we are able to step back and look at the bigger picture, we risk missing the forest for the trees — the skyline for the buildings, as it were.


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