Monday, September 14, 2009

Hancher - Part I

September 14, 2009, 6:25 a.m.

Some Suggestions for Thinking About the Location of
the University of Iowa's New Performance Venue
Part I

(brought to you by*)
[Entries in Hancher Series:

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part I," September 14, 2009 (Downtown).

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part II,"
September 15, 2009 (Natural Settings).

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part III," September 16, 2009 (The Costs).

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part IV," September 17, 2009 (UI's Mission and Mobility).]
Iowa City's residents, downtown merchants, University of Iowa officials -- and ultimately the Board of Regents -- have a decision, or series of decisions, to think through. The local paper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, is trying to help with its three-day, three-part series, "The Hancher Decision." Jim Lewers, "Hancher Series Begins Today," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009. (Stories in that series are linked throughout this blog entry and listed chronologically at the bottom.)

For any out-of-towners following this blog, "Hancher" was a stand-alone auditorium at the University of Iowa, set along the banks of the Iowa River, and one of Iowa's premier and most popular entertainment venues. During the flood of 2008 it was essentially destroyed. The decision to rebuild something called "Hancher" seems to have been made. The decision as to where to put it has not been.

This is the first in my own Hancher series this week. Today's subject is Iowa City's downtown. Tomorrow's will be entertainment venues in natural settings. Future subjects will be the economics of rebuilding Hancher, the rationale for public universities as part of the entertainment industry (football and Broadway road shows), what is "Hancher" (a building or a booking agent), the role of greenbelts in flood control, the arguments of politically powerful actual and potential Hancher neighbors (downtown restaurants, and Manville Heights residents), the distances and logistics of getting around our little toy town, the University of Iowa's commitment to the arts, and the desirability/necessity of keeping the music buildings and Hancher together -- along with anything else that occurs to me throughout the week..

I don't know about other bloggers, but I know that one of the reasons I write about issues like our economic collapse and recovery, future provision of health care, and path out of Afghanistan, is that the process of researching, analysis, organizing thoughts, and writing them up helps me figure out what I really think about these issues as to which I'd like to have a thoughtful opinion as a citizen. In the process, it often causes me to significantly modify, or completely change, the position with which I began.

So that's what this blog entry is about. What do I think about rebuilding the 1972, and now flooded-out, public entertainment venue we call, simply, "Hancher" (named for the University's president from 1940 to 1964, Virgil Hancher)? To the extent my exercise is helpful to your own efforts to think through the issues you're welcome to it.

Iowa City's Downtown There are a couple of interesting things to note about Iowa City's downtown. (1) One is the speed with which locals were able to make some really major decisions at the City's beginning. The legislative act creating the place was passed in January. As soon as the snows melted the commissioners met on May 1. By May 2 they'd selected, and placed a stake, in the center of downtown. By June they'd laid out all the streets. Compare that with the time it will take us to decide what and where to do about Hancher.

(2) The other is the year in which this was done: 1839 -- 170 years ago. The population of Iowa City would not reach 1250 until 11 years later. As Iowa's population spread westward, Iowa's 99 counties, and their "capitals," were located to serve an agricultural population -- with no farm more than a day's horse and buggy round trip ride along dirt roads to a county seat, with its markets, and entertainment for that weekly shopping "trip to town."

My memories of downtown don't go back much before the late 1930s. But at that time Iowa City still primarily functioned as the "county seat" town it remains today. (The city's population was almost 8000 in 1900, and grew from roughly 10,000 to 15,000 between 1920 and 1940.)

We didn't have "malls" in the 1930s, but downtown Iowa City provided much the same function, with drug and hardware stores (for farm equipment and supplies), Sears, Wards, J.C. Penney, five movie theaters, barber shops for the weekly shave and haircut, grocery stores, and so forth. There were no parking meters or parking garages, and no need for them. There was still the occasional horse, and not that many automobiles.

Coralville's Coralridge Mall, and the Tanger Outlets west on I-80, provide those functions for most shoppers today. (See, e.g., Rob Daniel, "New Stores Help Fill Coralridge Mall," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.) The former was soon doing a $100 million dollar a year business. It offered free, easy access parking, and a cluster of stores, restaurants and entertainment (including a childrens' museum) to satisfy a variety of needs and desires in one place (not to mention the additional dozens of facilities nearby).

Today that 1839 county seat of Iowa City, originally designed for less than 1000 people, has an 2008 estimated population of about 68,000 -- and is the principal city in its own Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA) of nearly 150,000.

A 170-year-old-platted downtown is simply not suitable for thousands of cars and people -- as those people who have voted with their gas pedals to go elsewhere have made clear. It takes more than vertical parking garages to lure them back, and I'm not confident that increasing the density of automobiles in our 1839-designed downtown is going to help when we plop Hancher down in the middle of it all.

It's not like downtown Iowa City does not have entertainment venues. It does. There's McBride Auditorium on the Pentacrest, Shambaugh Auditorium in the Main Library, the ballroom in the Memorial Union, the refurbished Englert Theater, Riverside Theater, the bars that emphasize entertainment over binge drinking -- and the outdoor performance areas on Iowa Avenue and the Ped Mall -- among others.

Putting an entertainment venue the size of Hancher in downtown Iowa City would be like putting the Carver Hawkeye Arena, or Kinnick Stadium, in downtown Iowa City. Our 1839 town has its quaint charm (and abundance of bars), but it was simply not designed to provide a home for an entertainment venue that holds twice as many people as the entire population of the city during many of the years of its history.

Nor is this just a matter of finding room in downtown Iowa City for the Iowa City residents of downtown and their automobiles, those people and their automobiles from out of town coming to Hancher performances, and the people and cars coming into downtown for other reasons when the Hancher crowds are there. There are some other logistical problems that may very well be deal breakers for a downtown location. As "arborealbuffoon" comments on a Press-Citizen story,
After nearly two decades working production for various venues hosting traveling attractions . . . the trend in recent years is towards ever larger productions. It is not uncommon for a Broadway bus and truck tour to carry 10 semis and 5 tour buses. How are we gonna get those vehicles INTO downtown, and then load in and out? Logistical nightmare. Productions get booked at modern, user friendly venues. The former Mark of the QC is a prime example. Our area has lost countless arena acts to their modern practical venue. Pushing production up and down the ramp at Carver-Hawkeye is a fiasco that adds to labor costs in a big way. . . . 9/12/2009 10:30:02 AM
A comment attached to, Brian Morelli and Josh O'Leary, "Is Moving Hancher Downtown a Game Changer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

These are just some of the physical, logistical problems of putting a Hancher in downtown Iowa City. There are, of course, economic and other challenges that will be discussed in future blog entries.

The Press-Citizen's Series

Jim Lewers, "Hancher Series Begins Today," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Editorial, "Choose Between Two Good Options for Hancher," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Chuck Swanson, "Either Site Will Work for Hancher," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Wallace Chappell, "Time to Divorce Hancher and the River," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Bob Hibbs, "Performance Spaces on the UI Campus," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli and Josh O'Leary, "What To Do About Hancher Auditorium," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli and Josh O'Leary, "Is Moving Hancher Downtown a Game Changer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli, "Regents to Have Final Say in Hancher's Location," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

"UI Flood Recovery Mostly Covered By FEMA Money," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli, "UI, Hancher May Get More FEMA Money," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli, "Officials Didn't See Flooding to Be Potential Problem," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Deanna Howard, "A man for the arts; Virgil Hancher envisioned an arts campus on the river," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Rob Daniel, "New Stores Help Fill Coralridge Mall," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

September 13

Josh O'Leary and Brian Morelli, "UI Weighs Options for Hancher Flooded Site," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2009.

Josh O'Leary, "Yarrow Ready for Hancher Rebuilding," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2009.

Josh O'Leary, "Proximity Key to Hancher's Neighbors," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2009.

"Learn More About Coralville Arts Center," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2009 ("This 500-seat community venue . . . will be available for use beginning in the spring of 2011 . . . by community groups for recitals, concerts, lectures, theater and other performances").

September 14

Bruce Wheaton, "The 'H,' 'V' and 'C' in 'HVC,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009.

Marc Moen, "Benefits of Urban Auditoriums," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009 (with link to Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, "The Benefits and Qualities of Cultural Districts") .

Brian Morelli and Deanna Howard, "As Venue's Revenue Losses Mount, Public Split; One Site's Weaknesses Are the Other's Strengths, Official Says," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009.

Brian Morelli, "Who Will Make Site Selection?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009.

"Culver Hopeful UI Will Get more Federal Funds; FEMA Head to Tour Campus' Flood Sites in Next Two Months," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009.

* 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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