Friday, July 10, 2009

Hancher Relocation Process and Site

July 10, 2009, 8:30 a.m.

University Offers Useful Model for Major Decisions
(brought to you by*)

The way the University of Iowa is going about the Hancher-Voxman-Clapp rebuilding project interests me almost as much in terms of the decision making process and procedure as the ultimate outcome.

The UI's "Facilities Management" held a major town hall-style meeting last night (July 9) with an invitation to all local folks interested in coming -- at which an estimated 350 showed up. It has created a Web site with relevant information, and provided an email address for those wishing to offer opinions, suggestions, and objections. It promises more public meetings in the future.

The Web site is The email address is

Unlike some past University -- and City, business and homeowner ongoing -- decisions to flout warnings about building in flood plains, and failing to provide flood-mitigating greenways, this time the University is taking very seriously the risk of future flooding. Its studies are not yet completed, but the Web site provides access to the current pdf file-report: Siting of Hancher/Voxman/Clapp and Art Building Flood Mitigation Task Force Recommendations, e.g., "The second and most important recommendation of the Task Force is that the future Hancher/Voxman/Clapp and Art Building complexes be designed and built in such a way that they are protected at least to an elevation two feet above the 500-year floodplain, as that 500-year floodplain has been newly calculated by a 2009 hydrologic study conducted by the Corps of Engineers and funded by the University of Iowa. This level of protection would be approximately seven feet above the high water elevation of the 2008 flood."

And the Web site also provides a link to the Power Point slides used at last evening's meeting. If you're interested in either the ultimate location of the buildings, or the process issues surrounding the University's decision-making process, these slides are very much worth your time. They include maps of the eight sites' locations, photos of the sites, and perhaps most significant a listing of the "criteria" used for evaluating them, which of those were considered "critical," and a comparative evaluation of the two sites thought to be the best of the eight.

Here is Lee Hermiston's report of last night's meeting: Lee Hermiston, "2 Possible Hancher Sites Show Promise; Citizens discuss relocating complex at public forum," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 10, 2009 ("While eight sites on and off campus have been identified, Joe Hibbard of Sasaki and Associates said not all of them will fit space, parking, topography and other critical needs. . . . The two sites with the most promise are the land directly north of the existing Hancher-Voxman-Clapp complex, dubbed Site 1, and a two-block parcel of land in downtown Iowa City"). And see, Erin Jordan, "Hancher Site List Narrowed to Two," Des Moines Register, July 10, 2009; Diane Heldt, "East vs. West for Relocated Hancher," The Gazette, July 10, 2009, p. A1.

The Press-Citizen's editorial yesterday urging attendance: Editorial, "Give Your Input Tonight on Where to Move Hancher," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 9, 2009

And some letters to the editor yesterday that put forth arguments for and against the two top sites:

Katherine Belgum, "Move Facility West of Its Present Site," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 9, 2009 ("The obvious choice is right along Riverside Drive just west of where the buildings are now located -- but built close to the street and uphill from there current location")

Regenia Bailey, "Iowa City Needs an Urban Auditorium," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 9, 2009 ("Placing Hancher Auditorium and the School of Music in downtown -- ideally south of Burlington Street -- would meet both city and UI objectives")

Donald Baxter, "Link New Hancher and Courthouse," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 9, 2009 ("Hancher should be located in such a place as to reinforce the growth of Iowa City's downtown, so the locations along Burlington Street are the most ideal")


As you may have gathered, I'm relatively well impressed with the process. If I recall correctly the "eight sites" were disclosed to the community by the University some time in March, rather than sprung on us last evening. Unlike the school board's proposal to close Roosevelt Elementary School, last night's meeting didn't have the aura of a "done deal." That may just be because the consultant and officials involved were simply more slick with their public relations than the school board members were with theirs. It's possible that the "March eight" were simply straw men to provide the illusion of alternative possibilities when "site 1" was already pretty obvious to them. But if that's the case they're entitled to some credit for their PR skills (an application of valuable skills somewhat analogous to the old advice, "be sincere, even if you don't mean it").

The point is, whatever may have gone on in back rooms, their list of "criteria" seemed rational and genuine, their comparative evaluation of sites 1 and 6 seemed balanced (that is, it acknowledged the strengths and weaknesses of each) rather than an argumentative effort to favor one over the other. They did hold the town meeting. They did explain and demonstrate their rational process. They are seeking to get the best data available with regard to risk from future floods, and they seem to be willing to have their decision driven by that data. They did listen to the remarks of a significant number of attendees. And the listening could come across as genuine since they had not merely presented to the audience what they were going to do (even if that was the case), but rather their "criteria" in a process that was represented to be ongoing rather than a done deal, and one that would involve additional public meetings.

Is there a template we can draw out of the contrast between the school board and Facilities Management approaches? I think so.

To hold a public meeting, with the express or implied representation that an institution genuinely seeks public input -- ideas, suggestions, reactions, objections -- that will help shape and be incorporated in a final decision, when in fact the decision has been made, is disingenuous at best and seriously self-defeating. It's worse than holding no meeting at all. Not only was the public not included, it was lied to and its efforts were merely wasted time.

On the other hand, there is a reason why experts with professional training are used by institutions as employees or consultants. You can't turn every decision over to a majority vote of the inadequately-informed, special-interest-driven mob.

So what's the best balance? I think the judicial process has something to offer in a procedure that might include the following:

o provide as much advance notice and transparency as possible with regard to future decisions

o outline the issues and relevant data for the public, in writing, on Web sites, as early in the process as possible

o include the criteria the institution believes relevant, along with a full and candid, independent, analysis of the arguments and data pro and con with regard to each option

o hold public meetings, and provide other opportunities for public input, at that point -- with a focus not on the ultimate decision, but on the data that needs to be gathered and the criteria that are relevant, of those the ones that are "crucial," and what is, and is not, thought to be appropriate analysis

o make some modifications, however relatively insignificant, in those data and criteria based on suggestions received, to provide the reality as well as the appearance of genuine listening and response -- rather than just rejecting all out of hand and sticking with the institution's initial list

o hold a public meeting at which the options (not a "decision," but the options) are presented along with an analysis of each in accord with the agreed upon criteria and data; listen and respond as appropriate to presentations by members of the public (while politely urging them to stick to the agreed upon criteria and avoid repeating the arguments of others)

o finally -- and the analog drawn from appellate court process -- when the ultimate decision is made issue a written explanation of how it was arrived at and why, that identifies and acknowledges every suggestion that came from the public throughout the process and the impact it had on the decision and why. (For example, suggestions were made last evening regarding the possibility of building over the Iowa River, or re-purposing the Foundation building as Clapp. Such ideas should be considered (even if ultimately rejected) -- rather than merely rejecting them, like universal, single-payer health care, as "off the table.")

A couple substantive ideas, and then I'm through.

On the assumption the "New Hancher" will go somewhere in the area bounded by the Iowa River, Park Road, and Riverside Drive I do hope some detailed thought will go into the potential greenway -- (a) using a parking lot surface that permits the permeability of water into the subsoil, and (b) planting of the grasses most able to hold back runoff. Properly planted, flood plains without homes and buildings not only eliminate property damage, they can also reduce the seriousness of the floods that will, inevitably, occur -- with their potential to absorb as much as a five-inch rain without raising the level of the River.

Has thought been given to re-routing Riverside Drive, so that its intersection with Park Road would occur nearer the River, across Park Road from the lower entrance into City Park? This could free up even more land near the top, rather than the bottom, of the present acreage.

What are the University's plans for 50 years out? I can recall when most of the University's buildings were within an easy walk of the Pentacrest. It was not until the late 1920s that it began to build (e.g., field house, hosptial, stadium) on the West side. It always seemed a shame to me that we did not take advantage of the $100 million spent on refurbishing Kinnick to buy land, and build a modern stadium and parking area, well out of town. Is the hospital complex going to have to continue to "build up instead of out"? The rest of the University as well? Or are we, at some point going to have to establish a second campus -- perhaps linked by monorail? If not, no problem (except for the congestion, and impact on Iowa City's historic neighborhoods, and downtown). But if that will need to happen at some point we might be wise to be thinking about it now, and considering (even if considering and then rejecting) the possibility of doing that with the "New Hancher" (while leaving Voxman and Clapp nearer to where they are).

All thoughts prompted by one evening meeting.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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John Barleykorn said...

Ahhh yes....Mob rule...Let the public decide. We see how well that has worked in California. Why not?

Nick said...

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