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Boutique hotel may return downtown

BY ALEKSANDRA VUJICIC | MAY 01, 2014 5:00 AM

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An office building located on the Pedestrian Mall could be headed back in time as a luxury hotel.

Mike Frantz, the owner of Frantz Community Investors, said Iowa City officials have been evaluating the redevelopment of the Jefferson Building and the south side of the 100 block of East Washington Street in order to optimize the area and put a new face on it for the next couple hundred years.

The Jefferson Building was originally introduced as the Jefferson Hotel in 1913. Today, it is owned by the University of Iowa, holding several department offices and retail shops on the ground level.

“Hotel Jefferson is probably the most unique historic building in Iowa City, and so I think there’s many different factions across the city who would like to see it restored,” Frantz said.

This idea is still very early in its conceptual stage, and UI spokesman Tom Moore said the university currently has no plans to sell the building.

Frantz said the idea to bring a boutique hotel downtown was due to the manifestation of many people’s desires to see a “beautiful, old hotel like that be repurposed and revitalized.”

Frantz owns the Kresge Building, which is adjacent to the Jefferson Building. It houses the Den, Running Wild, and Discerning Eye.

Discerning Eye owner Joni Schrup said she has a lot of unanswered questions about the potential project. A lot of her uncertainty lies in which part of the block would potentially be redeveloped and if that would be done around her business.

“Nobody likes uncertainty,” Schrup said. “Retail is uncertain enough. But [Frantz] just hasn’t given me any information.”

Frantz said these businesses are his highly valued customers and if anything were to move forward, strategically, it would be in collaboration with the already existing businesses.

“The idea is to take the best of what we have there now, and that is the local, family-owned businesses and enhance the block, not to supplant those businesses,” Frantz said. “So the overarching strategy is to make sure we do whatever we can to keep those businesses there.”

Running Wild Owner Joe Dwyer said he has witnessed a lot of change in the downtown area in the past 15 years, and the transformation is one of main reasons he decided to bring his business to the Downtown District.

“It’s continuing to change the landscape and the architecture downtown, and I think if it’s done the right way it could definitely be another reason to draw people downtown, both for consumers as well as businesses,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer remembers the Jefferson Building as a hotel when he was a student, and he said it would be great to have a hotel anchoring one end of the block.

“I’m not adverse to change,” Dwyer said. “Change is inevitable, but progress isn’t, and that’s something that I’ve always tried to embrace, because if you don’t change, nothing else is going to change either.”

A concern that comes with an evolving city is protecting the remaining historical roots downtown.

Rockne Cole is the co-head of the Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow, a group dedicated to preserving historic buildings in Iowa City. He said that specific part of the block hasn’t been fundamentally altered since the 1920s, but he is not opposed to redoing the hotel.

Cole said the potential developer has been responsive to the community’s concerns about preserving the historical aspect of the building to fit the character of downtown by not proposing any fundamental changes.

“We’re going to do everything we can to maintain and enhance the historic integrity of that block,” Frantz said.

There is currently no city code in place to prevent the destruction of buildings with a historical nature downtown, which is another concern, Cole said.

Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird said there must be a delicate balance between old and new with concepts such as this one. 

“I think the project itself is an innovative way to look at how we preserve our historic buildings downtown while also allowing growth,” Bird said.


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