Friday, March 27, 2015

Tonight, Tomorrow Last Chance for 'Troll Music'

March 27, 2015, 9:00 a.m.

Plenty to Enjoy About "Troll Music"
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
March 27, 2015, p. A7

Don’t miss “Troll Music”! The last performances are Friday and Saturday. (Details at Combined Efforts Theatre.)

Combined Efforts Theatre, an Iowa City gem, is Iowa’s only theater group that deliberately includes young and old performers and volunteers with and without disabilities. The plays are quality, original works by the group’s founder, award-winning playwright Janet Schlapkohl.

This one is about old friends meeting after years apart, secrets, new loves, memories both pleasant and painful, and the magic of delightful forest creatures — plus former burlesque performers, two out-of-work musicians and a mysterious child. The acting, directing by Elijah Jones, dancing gaggle of Nisse (look it up), and the Jazz Rascals make it a delightful evening for all.

But I am a New Orleans Dixieland jazz fan, with a reputation as a totally incompetent trombone beginner and a fading dream. So I have to admit that the highlight for me was listening to the almost-continuous “Riverbank Jazz Band” performance — a local group that had never played together before and assembled just for this show. (Audience dancing is not only permitted, it is encouraged — though not required.) They are as good as anything I ever heard in New Orleans over a half-century ago. Their names may be familiar to you: Ira and Katie Greenstein, Chris Clark, Jim Hall, Steve Norris and Tim Schulte

They alone are worth far more than the incredibly reasonable ticket price.

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City

# # #

Monday, March 09, 2015

But Seriously Folks . . . Preservation Policy

March 9, 2014, 1:15 p.m.

Iowa City Unitarian Church interior at time of 1907/08 construction. [Photo credit: Iowa State Historical Society.]


The Case for Satire
The Iowa City Unitarian Church Saga
Appendix: Related Local News and Opinion

The Case for Satire

The previous blog essay was intended to be lighthearted satire about a serious subject: How can the world in general, and Iowa City in particular, best go about establishing and following procedures for selecting which old structures will, and will not, be preserved, and resolving the land and building valuations issues accompanying such decisions?

I thought with a title like, “Will UI Demolish Pentacrest Buildings?” above a picture of the campus, the style of writing thereafter, and the self-deprecating humor, that it would be obvious that I was not serious about either the demolition of Old Capitol or how the Unitarian Society was handling the demolition of its own church. This is, after all, a personal blog.

Most of those who gave me feedback enjoyed it in that spirit. However, one who turned out to be a major player in this real-life Unitarian drama, and who said he spoke for others, posted a couple comments at the bottom of that blog indicating that my fans’ reaction was not universal.

Apparently, one person's satire can become another person's scurrilous sacrilege. The experience has given me a little more sympathy for UI sculptor Serhat Tanyolacar. "Threats and Sensibilities: Presidents Kim, Lynton and Mason,” December 22, 2014. Although I’m relieved to learn that there were also those who thought Jonathan Swift serious when he proposed to cure poverty by eating the children of the poor.

Regular readers of my blog saw that this latest essay was similar in spirit to a number of others that preceded it. For example, I once took on some people's serious proposal to fund the University of Iowa with proceeds from the sale of its Jackson Pollock painting, "Funding Iowa by Selling Assets; Legislators Selling Pollock Thinking Too Small,” February 17, 2011. My response was that the UI should take up Larry Flynt’s offer of $100 million for naming rights (“The Hustler Magazine University of Iowa”); sell all of Iowa’s topsoil to Ted Turner, who presumably wanted to use it to cover the proportion of the American West that he owned; or sell and transport Old Capitol, stone by stone, to a Las Vegas casino owner who had requested it be recreated as a centerpiece of his new Las Vegas casino complex.

What the American media has both created and then responded to (by further dumbing down its content) is the diminishing number of readers, listeners, and viewers willing to spend time, let alone money, informing themselves with serious presentations of public policy issues.

In "Three Legged Calves, Wolves, Sheep and Democracy’s Media," December 1, 2014, I suggest it has become so bad that the very best commentary on public policy issues is now coming from former stand-up comic and “Daily Show” member, John Oliver ("Last Week Tonight"). There are links to five sample videos of his presentations from the earlier "Three Legged Calves" blog essay. Click to watch some of them and see if you don’t agree.

I suffer no illusions that I am the next John Oliver. He is, first of all, an entertainer -– and commercially very successful. I am neither. He’s simply chosen to make the effort to also offer his audience some information and analyses they need to hear if our democracy is to survive. I just try on occasion to use similar approaches -– not always successfully -– to stimulate local, state, or national discussion.

Like other writers, I also find it useful when writing about general policy questions to tell the story around individual, specific examples, cases or incidents rather than limiting myself to dead-level abstracting with philosophical generalizations. In this case, that involved writing about preservation policy in the context of the Iowa City Unitarian Society’s frustrating struggle in trying to create what it believed were necessary alterations of its physical plant.

The Iowa City Unitarian Church Saga

That any church’s congregation should have to find itself applying for permission to demolish its own century-old church, and engaging in a fight against a National Historic Register designation of its building, is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

For reasons explained in the prior blog essay, I don’t know the details of what the congregation went through. Though a Society member, I did not participate in its information gathering and deliberations. I am not an activist on these issues, nor am I a member of any group, whether developers or preservationists. I’m just a writer willing, for purposes of this blog essay, to accept the congregation majority’s assertions.

They believed their physical plant was inadequate for a significant variety of reasons, among them size and lack of wheelchair accessibility. Renovation, or an addition, were the first choices, but proved not to be cost-effective, given what they’d get for their money -– as is often the case with buildings this age. An alternative location was explored -– an option used by other local churches. Being a small congregation (compared to today’s 5000-plus-member mega-churches) without multi-millions in budget or endowment, they would need to sell their present church in order to acquire a new location and build a new one.

These folks are no dummies. According to Pew’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, a mere 3/10ths of 1% of Americans are Unitarian-Universalists (2008), and yet when “Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale studied the listings of people in Who’s Who in America [he] concluded, ‘The productivity of the Unitarians in supplying leaders of the first rank has been 150 times as great as that of the remainder of the population.’" "The Unitarian Universalists." The Iowa City Society’s membership is the local equivalent, and includes some with very savvy business knowledge and experience. Moreover, devoid of a single, compulsory doctrinal agreement, Unitarians' efforts are driven by their ethical bearings -- which include respect for art, culture, and architecture.

Yet, despite their many efforts and good intentions, they found themselves caught up in the real estate equivalent of the country song lyrics, "you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game." It’s a game that includes a number of players, some of whom are politically powerful: the owners, developers, historic preservationists, City and other public officials, investors, and the public at large -– including the occasional blogger.

The Society would like to have seen the church preserved, given its deserved historic designation, and put to other uses -– as has been done with other local churches. (Failing that, if the building is to be demolished, many members have supported a controlled demolition that would permit the salvage of materials that could be used in building the new church.) Alas, neither the City, nor any other potential purchaser, came forward. With the church, and its undetermined preservation status, they (and developers) say it was worth about $500,000; without the church, and available for high-rise construction projects, plus multi-million-dollar TIFs from a generous City Council, it could be worth $2.5 million -– apparently enough to pay for the Society's demolition of its church, a move, purchase of land, and construction of a new church.

And so it was that they ended up playing out the tragedy of fighting for the right to demolish their own church.

In doing so, their frustration was certainly understandable. But I think it was unfortunate that it also took the form of statements seemingly dismissive of any value to historic preservation -- values that seemingly all in the Society had supported earlier in the process:
"When it comes down to our mission . . . it’s not about a building."

"We’re ready to use this property . . . as a way to generate income."

"[I]t is my hope that you did not join UUSIC because of the building . . .."

"If an application for a landmark designation were submitted for the City Council's consideration, the society [will] file a formal objection. We are determined to go to whatever lengths we have to . . .."

"Unitarian Universalist officials say . . . any concern about what might happen to the building or the land . . . are secondary."

"It’s not about moving. It’s not about a building."


There are probably many buildings preserved that most people would agree need not be; as well many more that most would agree should be preserved but are not. The majority of buildings fall somewhere in between -– with some people for preservation, some not, and many apathetic.

My first preference for societal resolution of economic issues is the marketplace -– when it works, meaning enough competition to serve customers’ needs regarding choice and price, and the full transparency and access to information needed by consumers to make their informed decisions possible.

But when there are market failures we need alternatives, usually in the form of public ownership, or government intervention and regulation. “The market” is especially ineffective in preserving things: creating wilderness parks (such as our national and state park systems), museums to hold art and artifacts -- and protecting historically and architecturally significant buildings from demolition.

One of the other recent examples of our bungling structures' preservation, involving the Civil War and literary cottages, was at least said to be, in part, a failure of prior decisions, planning, and timing.

We do have local efforts to designate areas of the city, and buildings, as worthy of preservation, plus zoning and building code provisions and processes. Perhaps it would be more helpful if we had more complete plans, and lists, agreed to by the City, and utilized without routine “exceptions.”

I don’t have “the answer.” (Law professors just “spot the issues” and ask questions.) But it seems to me this may be one of those instances in which taxpayer funding, to at least some degree, is both necessary and appropriate -– federal, state, county and local.

The City has been willing to throw around millions of dollars in TIF benefits to the private profit of developers building commercial and residential buildings. Today's morning paper reports yet even more generosity. Apparently the City Council is considering adding another million or two to taxpayer support of a downtown hotel project, up to $8.8 million. This is apparently needed because some unknown corporation called Hilton Hotels would otherwise be unable to build. Right. Mitchell Schmidt, “IC May Devote $1 Million More to Downtown Hotel,” The Gazette, March 9, 2015, p. A3.

This is not just a historic preservation issue. Even if one held no values other than money, at least a sprinkling of maintained, historic buildings can contribute as much to a community’s downtown attractiveness (and its businesses' profits) as a variety of other features that make people want to go there.

To make sure that happens, that buildings like the Unitarian Church are preserved, the City should be willing to invest some portion of the same amount of money in them as it does in its shiny new, TIF-ed high rises.

All of which brings us to another set of related, and central, issues about which I profess even less expertise: the pricing, and taking, of real estate value, and the impact of zoning and historic preservation designations. (With churches, of course, we have the added complication of their tax status and the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition of governments making laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ..”)

Governments can purchase –- or simply take –- private property (though there are minimums it must pay, and limits on its ability to do so when it subsequently hands the property over to another private party).

What is the “fair value” (if that be our standard) for, say, an acre of land zoned (and taxed) as farm land at the edge of town: what a willing buyer would pay for it to grow produce for local sale; or, what a developer would pay for it once it is rezoned for her 25-story high rise filled with $1 million condo units? That is one of the issues in the Unitarian church case -– a $2 million issue.

If the citizens of Iowa City, and the City Council, were to have agreed that the Unitarian church should be preserved, and that something should be paid to the Society for it, what would be a fair price? What the developers’ marketplace dictates ($500,000 with a protected church on it); what the property is worth with the church demolished ($2.5 million); what it would be worth if the zoning restrictions were changed and a 40-story office and residence building were built there with the aid of multi-million TIF benefits?

How about saying the owners of buildings to be preserved, and given to the City, should be compensated by the City enough for -- in this case -- the Society to acquire land and a building (whether pre-existing or built from the ground up) of roughly the same acreage and building size as what it has now? If the owner, in this case the Society, wants more land and building than that –- which in this case it does -– it will have to raise or borrow the additional money on its own. The City would commit to the preservation of the building and its use for City or other non-profit purposes; as for example, the preservation of the original Carnegie Public Library (across from the current Iowa City Public Library) now used by the University.

Wiser folks than I can undoubtedly come up with more and better solutions. Mine is merely an illustration, not "the answer." But whatever we might end up deciding to do in the future, it is clear to me that we -– as a community of citizens, some of whom are officials or business people -– simply must not repeat what the members of the Unitarian Society have been put through.

# # #


Related Local News and Opinion, December 2014—Early March 2015

Josh O'Leary, "Another central IC church eyes possible relocation," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 13, 2014 (includes list of other churches that have been demolished, closed, moved or repurposed).

Karen Nichols • Top Commenter • Iowa City, Iowa
It sounds like the developer would demolish an historic building that dates back practically to the founding of the town. Please, somebody step up to save that gorgeous old place.
December 12, 2014 at 5:41pm

Dan Brown • Iowa City, Iowa
I would hate to see that place go. I understand the needs of the congregation must come first (I was a member of the 1st Presbyterian Church where the deck on was made to move from Old Brick to Rochester) but I have celebrated so many rites of passage and performed in that space so many times that I can't help but rue the possibility that it could be displaced.
December 12, 2014 at 6:23pm

Matt Falduto • Top Commenter • Coralville, Iowa I hate to see it go too. I got married there and have performed in and produced many, many shows in that basement space. It will definitely be sad to see it go.
December 13, 2014 at 6:22am

Donald Baxter • Top Commenter • Iowa City, Iowa
Another piece of historic Iowa City is about to get smashed.
December 13, 2014 at 8:00am

Tim Weitzel • Top Commenter
Relocation of the UU from this building does not mean the building must be torn down, but will the developer see it that way? Will they seek a logical course to ask for a density bonus to remove the addition and build there, achieving both development and preservation goals? Will the City seek to accommodate such a plan?
December 14, 2014 at 5:41am

Pam Michaud, "Save the cottages and Gilbert Street zoning," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 8, 2015

("The Aug. 14 HPC meeting discussed Local Landmark and National Register status for 10 S. Gilbert St. UUSIC leaders were invited but did not attend.

These blocks should provide a gentle transition between the taller buildings downtown and the adjacent historic College Green neighborhood. The Comprehensive Plan of 2014 mandates transitional zones between commercial downtown and single-family zoning with maximum building heights of four to six stories. Spot zoning these three blocks to allow disproportionately taller structures would contradict both word and spirit of that plan.

What would the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street be without the 1908 Unitarian Universalist church? And what would take its place? More three-bedroom student apartments instead of needed affordable or workforce housing? Yet another TIF-financed tower for upscale hotel and housing for the affluent to shadow Chauncey Swan Park? It is time to stop ambitions from tearing down the unique buildings that represent our history for structures that duplicate each other in purpose and appearance.")

Maria Houser Conzemius • Top Commenter • Blogger at Iowa City Patch Outstanding op-ed! I agree completely. Thanks for laying out the issues so beautifully.
January 7 at 10:19am

Jerry Morgan • Top Commenter • Iowa City, Iowa
Well just start some fundraising and find some other ground to put them on and don't interfere with the rights of property owners. Tear them down already.
January 7 at 4:25pm

Holly Hart • Top Commenter • Works at Iowa Shares
Excellent article on the ongoing Saga.
January 7 at 5:32pm

Jeffrey Cox, "Recognizing the Historical Significance of the Unitarian Universalist Church," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 29, 2015

("The Historical Society Report concludes that the church is sufficiently significant to be included on the National Register of Historic Places for its architecture and design, as well as for inclusion in a historic district or conservation area on Iowa Avenue.")

("We can only hope that the members of the Unitarian Universalist Society, many of whom wish to see the church preserved one way or another, will work with the Friends of Historic Preservation, developers and the city of Iowa City to find a way to preserve this historic asset to our community.")


Tim Weitzel • Top Commenter
Of course the State Historic Preservation office, the official repository for site inventory forms in Iowa, would not have commissioned a study or completed the form themselves. It most likely would have been through historic preservation and planning efforts undertaken by the City of Iowa City, though it may have been part of a self-study by the congregation.

The addition does not contribute significantly to the building's architecture, and could be removed, allowing room to build a fairly tall, albeit narrow building.
January 29 at 8:58am

Colleen Higgens, "Letter to the Editor: Historic is not always meaningful or practical," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 5, 2015

(As a member of the Iowa City Unitarian Church, presently located at 10 S Gilbert St., I would like to respond to the guest opinion by Jeffrey Cox ("Recognizing the historical significance of the Unitarian Universalist Church," Jan.29). (br />
Yes, I agree that the building has historic value. Unfortunately this does not make it a building that can be efficiently heated and cooled, with access for all, parking and space for all the activities and events we want to see there.

Yes, I would like to see the city, the Friends of Historic Preservation, developers, or perhaps Cox himself find a way to preserve what he calls "this historic asset to our community." Believe me, the congregation has tried over several years to find a way to remodel/revamp the existing structure to grow with us.

This building has served us well over the last century. We are looking now at building a wonderful new, green, functional structure that will have increasing historic value over the next century.

What Cox wrote might have been useful a year or so ago in our process. Now, it just sounds like second-guessing by someone who has no investment in the process. Again, historic is not always meaningful, useful or practical. Just as I would not ask someone to wear corsets or let their teeth rot for lack of modern dentistry, I think we need to look at architecture that will work in the future, not hobble ourselves to the past.

Colleen Higgins

Laura Hordesky, "I.C. church votes to leave downtown home of 107 years," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 10, 2015

("Protzman said Sunday’s vote, which saw 74 percent of the congregation participate, will let the church live out its mission.

“It’s not about moving. It’s not about a building. It’s about being able to do what we’re called to do in the world,” he said.")

("Unitarian Universalist member Tim Adamson, who has headed the church’s facilities steering committee, said church leaders explored all possibilities, including remodeling or rebuilding on its current site, before calling for a vote. . . . “It’s a watershed moment for us,” Adamson said. “It means that we’re ready to use this property no longer as our home but as a way to generate income for another property. There’s no going back.”)

Tim Adamson, "Unitarian Universalist Society: Moving On, Moving Forward," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 10, 2015.

Andy Davis, "Unitarian Universalist Society Sees Move As New Chapter," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 19, 2015

("But Unitarian Universalist officials say for them, any concern about what might happen to the building or the land on which it sits are secondary to ensuring the congregation finds a new home to accommodate its growth and mission.")

("In 1841, the First Universalist Society of Iowa City formed a congregation and built a small brick building on the corner of South Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue, where Dulcinea now sits, according to a 1999 site inventory form from the State Historical Society of Iowa. A fire destroyed the building in 1868, according to the form, and a new, Byzantine-style church was built in 1873 on the corner of Iowa Avenue and South Clinton Street across from the Pentacrest. . . .

In 1906, the congregation voted to sell the building to the University of Iowa for $18,000. Construction began in 1907 on the current church at 10 S. Gilbert St., . . ..")

("While we understand and appreciate the historic preservation point of view, it is not practical nor in our mission to preserve that site," Protzman said. "Our mission comes first, and the building as it stands, or even if it is renovated, cannot support our needs now or in the future.")

("The State Historical Society inventory form indicates that although "the office wing detracts from the building's original scale, the building remains sufficiently intact to be individually eligible for the National Register (of Historic Places) under Criteria C," which focuses on the architectural aspects of historic buildings. The form also indicates that the building is eligible because it is associated with significant events and the lives of significant persons, and may yield significant archaeological and historic information.")

("At its meeting Feb. 12, the Historic Preservation Commission requested that the Planning and Zoning Commission give the property special attention when considering rezoning applications for possible nearby developments. The Historic Preservation Commission also recommended that the city explore ways to facilitate preservation of the building as a community facility.

"This building could really serve the city, and the citizenry should encourage the city to save this building," said Historic Preservation Commission Chairwoman Ginalie Swaim during a Feb. 12 commission meeting. "It could hold cultural events; it's right downtown there. It could be a real incubator for artistic endeavors."

"It would make a great city museum," said commission member Pam Michaud during the same meeting. "It gives people a very good sense of historic architecture."

Friends of Historic Preservation Executive Director Alicia Trimble said she thinks there could eventually be a solution that would allow the church to be preserved and also allow the society to move to a site that better suits its needs.

"I think the city should purchase the property. For about 40 years the city has had an agreement with the society that if the society ever decided to sell, the city would be an interested buyer," Trimble said. "The supposition was that the city would knock down the addition and put up a bigger fire station. I've had conversations with a few of the society leaders, and they've said they have not gotten a response from the city yet."

Trimble also said the church could be an asset to the community and provide space for smaller organizations to host functions.

"I've had conversations with the local arts community about it. There's a small stage on the ground floor where smaller groups gather if they wanted to have a small presentation on that stage. I think it could be a great community center, and I really think it would be a great location for more community development," she said.

Trimble said Friends of Historic Preservation has not submitted any applications to the city to designate the church a local historic landmark.)


Sue Young • University of Iowa
The City should acquire this site as expansion of the current city hall/police station/fire department building adjacent to it. This is the only part of the block NOT owned by the city. If they are not thinking, they will let a developer buy the land, then pay more to the developer to get the same land. If there is a standing first right to buy from the city, the city should buy it. And it is too bad to loose this group away from the downtown area. But life goes on.

Editorial, "We Must Protect Our History," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 12, 2015

(Now that the Iowa City Council has denied an application to establish the cottages at 608 and 610 S. Dubuque St. as local historic landmarks, we must ask ourselves two questions: "What did we learn from this process?" And, "Where do we go from here?"

The fate of the Civil War-era cottages has been hotly debated since mid-November, after discussions began about razing them to develop the area. Historically, the cottages were part of Iowa City's first working class neighborhood, which arose south of downtown after the railroad was built in 1856, according to Iowa City's Friends of Historic Preservation. Historians also have tied the cottages to the beginning of the Actualist Poetry Movement in the 1970s.

The debate brought into sharp focus the delicate balancing act of respecting property rights and preserving a community's history.

In this case, we think the council made the right decision.

Mayor Matt Hayek may have said it best Monday night: "It's an unfortunate experience on both sides. It's shameful that these properties have been allowed to deteriorate like this over time ... but it's also shameful that members of the pro-preservation side have demonized the property owner."

While we recognize the role the cottages played in Iowa City's history, we are somewhat bothered by the 11th hour stand to preserve them. If they are so historically significant, we have to question why preservationists hadn't attempted to ensure they continue to be a part of our community long before the owner and potential developer's plans were made public — and after those parties spent considerable amounts of money to begin that process.

The Riverfront Crossings Plan indeed states that preserving the cottages should be a goal and recommends that the city offer incentives for preserving any old buildings in the district. However, development of the area south of Burlington Street has been a city priority for several years — and one that is starting to pay off.

Just a few of the projects underway or planned for this extension of downtown include the University of Iowa's Voxman Music Building and the Museum of Art; a 12-story Hilton Garden Inn Hotel at 328 S. Clinton St.; One Place @ Riverfront Crossings, a six-story, 55,000-square-foot, $12 million building that will provide the MidWestOne Bank with additional office space, drive-through banking and a rooftop reception area; and a proposed 15-story, 154-unit mixed-use high-rise at 316 S. Madison St.

Riverfront Crossings also includes an example of the city working with a developer to preserve a piece of history. On Jan. 6, the Iowa City Council granted a height bonus to XJ-23 LLC, owned by the Clark family, for a five-story residential building with 20 multi-family units, parking and open space, provided the historic Tate Arms boarding house at 914 S. Dubuque St. be preserved. The Tate Arms building will be restored and converted into a duplex.

One of the biggest lessons we urge the community to take from the cottages controversy is the importance of identifying and promoting our historic properties long before they are on the chopping block.

Here are a handful mentioned in a recent Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission meeting agenda to use as a starting point:

•The Sanxay-Gilmore House at 109 E. Market St.

•Unitarian Universalist Society Church, 10 S. Gilbert St.

•A house at 410 Iowa Ave.

•A house at 422 Iowa Ave.

•A house at 505 Iowa Ave.

If you are passionate about preserving any of these structures — or any others in the community — we urge you to act now to take steps to ensure they remain for decades to come despite any growth and progress this great city experiences.

As we said in this space just a few months ago: "As Iowa City works toward making its vision for the Riverfront Crossings District a reality, officials must find a balance between preserving important pieces of history and making way for new development."

We believe this holds true not just for the Riverfront Crossings District, but for all areas of the city.

It's proving to be a bumpy road, but rarely are important decisions easy to make.)


Joye Chizek • Sherrard, Illinois
I think city leaders should be thinking about what direction the city should take for the future. Sure, Iowa City got voted best party town in 2014, but fame like that won’t pull in revenue dollars forever. What’s missing is the full-fledged recognition by UNESCO in 2010 of Iowa City with then only two other large international cities in the world. Leaders with future on their minds would have taken that rare and wondrous designation and run with it. But no…instead of getting I-80 signage and making the most of Iowa City’s unique designation by bulking up on unusual book stores, preserving literary landmarks, encouraging public readings, erecting art to beef up the walk of bronze plaques…they allowed further decline of non-chain ventures and bull-dozed one historic cottage in the middle of the night.

Lots of cars pass Iowa City each day on I-80. Few pull in to spend money outside of the University because they know they’ll find the exact same offering of restaurants and shops down the road a bit. Sad, because Iowa City has an authentic history. In addition to the Workshop, in the 1970s a small group of poets and writers rebelled against the 1950 teaching methods that crippled bursting creativity teaching that writing had per-determined form and structure, not meant for the common man to try much less participate in. So the 14 or so started a literary movement that took the word and shared it freely with the citizens of Iowa City. Block of buildings, that no longer exist, were wrapped with butcher paper soon covers with poems. Dubuque Street was covered with poems “written” with a mop dipped in white wash. From atop the late Jefferson Hotel a poem was written for hours until the paper dipped down to the third floor. Crazy, maybe. Important, for sure. From this, as the world changed and opportunity withered, the members left for the east and west coast where there new writing was adopted by others to become the way all print ads, text messages and most fine literature is acceptably written today. And it started in the small town of Iowa City.

Anyone see the possibilities for a City of Literature that become a place of pilgrimage for those wanting to see literature alive in so many ways…festivals, readings, wide open creativity encouraged along with rare book stores, galleries...a literary haven with of course wonderful rare and creative local restaurants, wines, places to stay where great works were conceived and activity that can only be found in Iowa City everywhere…. or you can ignore the opportunity and destroy every hint the a City of Literature was a valid, if not cheap and easy, option.
February 11 at 3:08pm

Douglas Ward • University of Iowa
It makes me sad that the pro-preservation of a city’s our city’s character is being demonized by a popularly elected official of that same city.

There may be a beautiful mistake made here, I will agree to that assertion. I just don’t feel like we’re owning up to the right mistake. If popular concern about the loss of these two cottages came late in the game, I’m sorry it inconveniences the Mayor’s and the council’s grand plans for our city. I am sorry that the historical relevance is called into question as a defense for continuing on with plans of righteous demolition. I am sorrier still that the need for more glass and concrete structures as an increase to our tax base outweighs the embrace of our municipality’s identity.

I do feel guilty that between my full time job and being a parent and volunteer that I just let the whole Riverfront Crossings plan consume a couple of insignificant structures on my daily commute. Yes, that’s all they are. Points of interest that I can enjoy discussing with friends as we shop for used books or eat at Her Soup Kitchen. Had I just kept a more vigilant eye on my elected representatives this wouldn’t have been an 11th hour plea for mercy. Because everyone knows that if you can’t operate on money’s schedule, you don’t deserve to make the agenda. So yes, I am also sorry to inconvenience the developer and city planners.

As a transplanted Iowa City resident I’ll just do my best to embrace the change that is apparently what my elected officials think is best for my town’s future. I will turn my back on the distant past like a good soldier and concentrate on my reflection in the shiny new green glass and concrete of our future. Thank you for showing me the light Mayor Hayek, and thank you Press Citizen for reminding me that our apparently collective vision of being almost as cool as Coralville may be a bumpy road but that’s a clear sign an important decision is being made, and made correctly.
Douglas Ward
February 11 at 7:59pm

Andy Davis, "Unitarian Universalist Society to Seek Demo Permit," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 5, 2015, p. A1

(Adam Ingersoll, a member of the society’s board of trustees and its New Facilities Committee: "when it comes down to our mission, our identity and those who we’re trying to serve, it’s not about a building.")

("Alicia Trimble, executive director of Friends of Historic Preservation, said her organization has no plans to apply for landmark designation of the church.

“I haven’t talked to my board, but I don’t think at this point we want to submit an application for the church,” Trimble said. “The Historic Preservation Commission, as well as the Planning and Zoning Commission, have said it’s landmark-worthy. Someone will apply for landmark designation.”

Ingersoll said if an application for landmark designation were submitted for the City Council’s consideration, the society would file a formal objection with the city, meaning six out of seven council members would have to vote in favor of designating the church. . . . “We are determined to go to whatever lengths we have to to secure the rights for our future buyer that deliver us the value we need,” Ingersoll said.")

Andy Davis, "Council fails to approve comprehensive plan amendment," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 10, 2015 (“'Because of property tax reform that was approved at the state level in 2013, we may have significant issues in the future,' council member Susan Mims said. 'To be able to continue to support not only the arts, but social services, will become more difficult unless we are able to build our tax base.'”)

Andy Davis, "Council Decision Slows Chauncey Project," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 13, 2015 ("The council's denial of the amendment also could affect the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City's plans to sell its property at 10 S. Gilbert St., including its 107-year-old church, and relocate.. . . Adam Ingersoll, a member of the society's board of trustees and its new facilities committee, said a plan to apply for a demolition permit was a dual effort to prevent historic landmark designation of the church and to sell the property at its highest value, which, he said, could be diminished by the council's decision.")

Dave Tingwald, "Keep the Downtown Buffer," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 18, 2015 ("The proposal for high-rise zoning — which I am grateful failed due to lack of a required supermajority — raises suspicion of an agenda that would degrade the adjoining neighborhood, abandon the city’s central campus, or gift it piecemeal to politically-connected developers. In any case, I am opposed, and will score this vote in upcoming elections.")

Robert Richardson, "Unitarians missing a sense of place," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 19, 2015, p. A5 ("Irving Weber must be spinning in his grave as this city continues to tear down its historic buildings. . . . I am disappointed by the callous nature of several [UUSIC]members’ remarks regarding the building’s eminent demise. One long-term member said, 'If they have a bonfire, I’ll bring the matches.' A staff member said, 'If anyone wants to preserve the building, they are welcome to move it.' The Unitarians like to recite their history as dogma. The date of the Society’s founding is always part of every service. Well-known historical figures who were Unitarian are always mentioned. But, a sense of place is not on the agenda. Unfortunately, one is only allowed to tear down a 107-year-old building once.") And see, Ry Richardson, "Ry Toonz," blog.

Janice Frey, "What's the Big Picture Here?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 20, 2015 ("The only picture I see emerging from this council is one that welcomes buildings devoid of character and rich in vacant commercial space: the hallmark of dying cities. If the mayor and the City Council are truly pro-preservation, they should step up and take some leadership on the issue instead of demolishing buildings that provide the historic interest and character that make this town an enjoyable place in which to live and visit.")

Kenn Hubel, "Time for Unitarians to Move On," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 23, 2014, p. A9 ("Fellow Unitarian Universalist Robert Richardson ('Sense of place not on Unitarians’ agenda,' March 19) tells of the comfort he felt in the sanctuary of our building following the death of his wife and of his sorrow that it may be demolished. . . . I, too, regret the loss of a special place that has provided comfort at significant times in my life, but it is time to move on.")

The Press-Citizen maintains a page for items related to the Iowa City Unitarian-Universalist Society that now contains 29 Items:

Facebook Comments

[Note: Although Facebook posts and comments are a modern form of public publication, subject to "Fair Use," since the formulation of Facebook rules and social norms are still in process, any requests that comments be deleted from this blog essay will of course be honored. -- N.J.]

Tim Weitzel's Page

Tim Weitzel
March 7 at 2:39pm ·
Let it be said now that not all options have been pursued. While the previous UU building was sold to the University, who tore it down, a demolition of iust the education wing of the current UU building would allow for a fairly tall structure, if that area is included in the Central Business District, provided the City was willing to loose some parking lot space during construciton, and or close a lane on Gilbert temporarily (which should not be a big deal as we are hopefully moving to a road diet there soon anyway. A restaurant or shop could use the existing building provided a successful rezoning was accomplished, something that needs to happen no matter what occurs next on this parcel, with the exception of another institutional use. Or, alternatively, the building might be moved, though that is always a tough sell.


Thomas L. Fiegen likes this.

Bobby Jett
it will be interesting to see how this turns out
March 8 at 5:39pm

Warren Paris
Iowa City always needs another restaurant. Serving food in the Ole England manner, just using hands.
March 8 at 7:14pm

My own Facebook notice of the March 7 blog essay, at 1:56 p.m., produced 6 likes and the following two comments:

Tim Weitzel
The UU building looked like a church, was called "Byzantine" in a appearance locally, and was located on the northeast corner of Iowa and Clinton Sts. It was sold to the University, which used it for a time and then tore it and a couple of former residences downtown for small dormitories sometime after 1947. Those were subsequently cleared for Philips Hall in 1964 or '65.
March 7 at 4:28pm

Sam Osborne
On the current location of Philips Hall, and after demolition of the church, corrugated World War II barracks were constructed. When I came to Iowa I had some classes in them. These structure and Quonset huts of the same material were all over campus and were used as married student housing. After getting out of the army I live in one half of one is Stadium Park somewhere close to the location of the new indoor football facility. Maybe Nick remembers the Holy Quonset (as it was called) that housed St. Thomas More Church---it was up on the high bank west of flooded Hancher that sits were ponds off the Iowa river were until they were filled in.
March 7 at 3:36pm

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Saturday, March 07, 2015

Will UI Demolish Pentacrest Buildings?

March 7, 2015, 12:48 p.m. [If you are interested in -- and especially if you are offended by -- this blog essay, be sure to see "But Seriously Folks . . . Preservation Policy," March 9, 2015.]

Links to Contents

Revenue is Needed
My Unitarian Journey
Location, Location, Location
The Finality of Demolition
The Unitarians' Mission
The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing
Selling the Pentacrest

Revenue is Needed
Once "revenue is needed" is the Polestar for a university's financial decisions, its moral compass begins to spin as if it was located on the North Pole.

-- Nicholas Johnson
Sadly, it has been necessary to repeat that "spinning moral compass" line a number of times in this blog during the past eight years or more.

"Revenue is needed" is why K-12 schools feel they have to sell sugar-laden drinks to their students. It's how the UI Athletic Department explained why it had to take money from the alcohol and gambling industries. It's why politicians explain they need to accept bribes from, and then vote for, special interests. It's why the Regents raise tuition (when they do).

It is, currently, the explanation offered by the local Unitarian-Universalist Society leadership for their hard-driving obsession to demolish their own church. (The hyphenated name is the consequence of an early 1960s merger; I'll often use the shorter "Unitarian" as that was the Iowa City Society's name for most of its 173-year history.)

Like the military's explanation in Viet Nam that "we had to destroy the village to save it," they've decided that they have to demolish the church to save it.

For a group that prays "to whom it may concern," that binds one another to follow "the Ten Suggestions," doesn't put steeples on its churches, and limits its terrorist acts to burning wooden question marks on lawns, I can understand and even admire their lack of religious dogmatism. But it never occurred to me that one of their community service projects would involve the demolition of their own church.

My Unitarian Journey

Although I have been a member of that Society since the 1940s, and still am, my status might best be described as that of "a fallen-away Unitarian" -- which is probably about as far from serious religiosity as one can get this side of Bill Maher and Ron Reagan (the younger).

As a young boy, upon discovering that many of my classmates and playmates had "a church," I asked my parents what church I should go to. They had their own childhood and adulthood preferences for themselves, but suggested I should visit a few and decide for myself. Thereafter, I visited something between many and most of Iowa City's churches.

For some religions, I discovered, like the coal miner who had wanted to be a judge in the Beyond the Fringe sketch, that "I didn't have the Latin for it." My church visits also revealed that while some churches would excommunicate me for visiting other churches, the Unitarians would give me extra points for doing so.

Because I've always enjoyed learning about and experiencing a variety of religions, theirs was the Membership Book (long since lost) I ended up signing.

The "induction" procedure was also attractive, as I had not yet even begun the study of French, yet alone Latin, and knew I could never master enough Hebrew for a bar mitzvah. It was a typically simple Unitarian procedure involving no memorization on my part, no ritual from the Minister, Evans Worthley, or anything remotely resembling water boarding. It was pretty much "sign your name here" and, like the coal miner I, too, "got 75 percent on that."

Location, Location, Location

A Unitarian Society in Iowa City is as old as the State of Iowa and the City of Iowa City. There was an Iowa City group in 1841. The Iowa State Historical Society has records for "First Unitarian Society of Iowa City, 1856-1962 plus." The current building, downtown at the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street, was completed around 1907 or 1908.

But the local congregations have formerly always followed the capitalists' advice regarding the three most important rules of church building: "location, location, location." In Iowa City that has involved recognition of the necessity of a central location downtown -- until now.

The earlier church building, which I believe burned down (rather than being deliberately subjected to demolition by the Society's members), was only two or three blocks west of the present location -- I believe at the corner of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque, or possibly Clinton, Streets. My even fuzzier memory of a building before that one places it in the same general area. (Unless I've missed something, the details of the Iowa City Society buildings' 173-year history either never appeared, or have been removed from, its Web site.)

The current Society membership apparently has its eye on a distant parcel of land to the north and east of the present location, on the far north end of town, out by "99th and plowed ground," in or near a woods, with neither a current access road nor adequate parking.

Putting aside for the moment the adequacy and appropriateness of this particular parcel of land, let's consider "location, location, location."

Much of the rationale of previous congregations -- many others as well as Unitarian -- for building downtown is still valid: it is much more convenient for students and faculty, Iowa City residents living in the close-by, east side neighborhoods, or simply otherwise downtown of a Sunday morning. It is within walking distance for many more than will be within walking distance of their new woods.

Add to this the City-Council-University-Developer-Complex of which President Eisenhower warned us. This single most politically powerful local cabal is as committed to building the downtown upward to the sky as the Unitarians are committed to demolition. Taxpayers' money in the form of TIFs is being thrown around like necklaces at Mardi Gras.

Regardless of your feelings regarding this sky-and-money-grab effort, there are now far more humans (and therefore potential new Unitarians) occupying downtown dormitories, apartments, and high rise condo structures than ever before -- with even more to come. There are restaurants, theaters, hotels, small shops and bookstores -- and other reasons the residential population within walking distance of the Unitarians' current church will continue to increase.

Why assume that just because someone can afford a $1 million condo unit they would never attend a Unitarian Church? The membership is significantly more respectably attired than it was in the 1960s. And you certainly don't have to be a Democrat to be a Unitarian.

So why, oh why, would one choose this moment in history to abandon the rapid and increasing membership potential -- and opportunities for community service -- for a church located in the heart of this growth?

And even if one's actions are primarily driven by "revenue is needed," why would one choose this moment to toss away the potential future financial profit associated with a plot of land in the middle of this future population growth -- a plot already valued at $2.5 million, and growing?

The Finality of Demolition
"The Historical Society Report concludes that the church is sufficiently significant to be included on the National Register of Historic Places for its architecture and design, as well as for inclusion in a historic district or conservation area on Iowa Avenue. . ."

-- Jeffrey Cox, "Recognizing the historical significance of the Unitarian Universalist Church," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 26, 2015.
Demolition seems, somehow, so final.

Visiting a patient in a psychiatric ward years ago, he explained to me why he had abandoned his suicidal plans. He had finally come to realize, he said, that "suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

And demolition is not only a final, permanent solution, it also seems to be endemic to some religions. ISIS demolition of non-ISIS artifacts is one of the most recent examples. Anne Barnard, "ISIS Attacks Nimrud, a Major Archaeological Site in Iraq," March 6, 2015, p. A14. This is a picture of the ancient Roman theater at Leptis Magna, about 80 miles east of Tripoli, built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.). For reasons not clear, ISIS appears to hate any evidence of Romans -- and sufficiently so that, like Iowa City's Unitarian Church, this theater is now targeted for demolition. [Photo credit: David Gunn.]

Of course, local Unitarians are not planning to demolish their church, this religious and architectural icon, ancient by Iowa standards, because they hate all evidence of earlier Unitarians or architecture drawn from Virginia Episcopalians during the 1600s. (See, Jeffrey Cox, "Recognizing the historical significance of the Unitarian Universalist Church," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 26, 2015 ("The unobtrusive brick buttresses are similar to those found on some Episcopalian churches built in Virginia in the 17th century").

They are demolishing it because "revenue is needed." But, then, "revenue is needed" is part of what drives ISIS' pillaging as well, as sales of antiquities as well as oil contribute to its ongoing cash flow.

The Unitarians' Mission

The Unitarians' Demolition Derby leadership explain that their own version of a "permanent solution to a temporary problem" -- the homicidal demolition of their church -- is necessitated by the Society's "mission." While "the mission" is often referred to in their explanations and news stories, it is not clear (a) what the details of that mission are, and (b) why those details require demolition of their church building.

The Demolition Derby leaders can better state their rationale than I can, but it appears that among their reasons are the need for a larger building for a larger congregation, and the cost of refurbishing the current church and making it wheelchair accessible.

Frankly, I think their first need will not be well served by building anything, of whatever size, so far from where humans are to be found -- including present members of the Society. Not only is it out of the way, but it is not easy to happen upon, or find. There are unlikely to be many folks wandering around in the woods who come upon it accidentally -- something that probably does happen with a downtown location.

As for the complexity and cost of refurbishing, I've continued to live by the old saying that got us through the Great Depression: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."

I live in a house in an Iowa City west side residential area (within my walking distance from the church) that was built about the time of that church, and was first acquired by my father 75 years ago. When first lived in by the family that built it, light was provided by gas, water came from a cistern holding rain water, it had no insulation, and was otherwise easily distinguishable from Iowa City homes built in this Century -- as it still is.

Rather than demolish the house, sell the lot, and build a newer, shinier home in the woods, we have refrained from additions or other major expenses and simply refurbished it from time to time. It is regularly painted, wired for electricity, well insulated, with tight-fitting storm windows, indoor plumbing taking water from the City's water network, and other modern amenities. Some find the old Chambers kitchen gas range charming, others think it a monstrosity. In short, we find it fully adequate home in which to live.

Like the Unitarians, I too have a mission I cannot afford.

My mission is much more specific than theirs. My mission is to build an enormous warehouse-style structure in the back yard, where our lifetime accumulation of stuff, including thousands of books -- now in the attic, basement, garage, and throughout the house -- can be moved, properly sorted, shelved, labeled and indexed. My mission also includes the purchase of a top-of-the-line Tesla automobile, to enable my personal experience (as a former cyberlaw professor) with "the Internet of things" and the future of all-electric automobiles with reasonable mileage for trips out of town.

Rather than assuming my only option was to demolish the family home and sell the lot, I realized there was another choice: abandon or radically alter that mission. Applying the "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" philosophy, I substituted a $2000 investment in repairs to my old, 1999, rusty Mazda 626, for the $100,000 Tesla (or even a newer, $5000 used car). Given that I seldom drive a car more than 400 miles a year, that seemed an adequate, safe and more sensible choice. As for our "stuff," I decided to thin out the books, donate some things to Goodwill, and throw out others. Even though I really "needed" that enormous, shiny new warehouse, we seem to be managing without it.

Could a similar approach to mission creep work for the Unitarians? The near-unanimous vote of the congregation would seem to suggest, "No."

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

A frustrated university president is said to have described his faculty as a group of folks "who know the value of everything and the price of nothing" -- a twist on the old line about those "who know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

The Unitarians' Demolition Derby leaders are at no risk of being charged with not knowing prices. I just don't share their values.

Can't figure out a way to keep the Society where it is? Try harder. My benefit-cost analysis leads me to conclude that giving up the present location (for the reasons already itemized) involves a far greater loss than any possible benefit. That should be the first choice. Maybe just fix-ups, like my 1999 Mazda. Maybe additions or major remodeling. Maybe some out-of-the-box thinking. One of the expressed problems is the expanding membership's need for more space. The way many churches solve that one is to have more services rather than demolishing their church building and building new elsewhere.

Even if one wants or needs to move anyway, make a real effort to preserve the building. Churches need not be demolished because they are unfit for any other use. Consider the old First Presbyterian Church, now the community resource called "Old Brick," or the former St. Thomas Moore church (that I occasionally attended) now the UI School of Music's Riverside Recital Hall. The former Christian Science Church was sold, but is now a place of worship for St. Raphael’s Orthodox Church.

In these circumstances I find particularly deplorable that the leadership is not only willing to make the move before they have found a suitable occupant or other way to preserve this very valuable bit of the Society's history and legacy, they are actively opposing the efforts of others to preserve the building. It is they who are taking the initiative to obtain, and use, the permit to demolish it.

My ethical evaluations of institutions' behavior are shaped in part by the nature of the institution. Immorality in religious institutions bothers me more than immorality in business, or politics. University administrators who stifle inquiry and free expression, or make stupid decisions, bother me more than stupidity in government or the military.

When I was living in Houston, one bank president got a demolition permit to destroy his relatively new and perfectly usable bank, and rebuilt it a few feet higher so it would be the tallest bank in town. This was of course in Texas, where as my late friend Mollie Ivins used to say, "More is better, and too much is not enough." What else would you expect from a Houston banker? I thought the decision silly, and financially harmful to shareholders. But it didn't otherwise bother me. The former bank was no great shakes architecturally, and the newer one no better. But I didn't see the decision as otherwise involving moral or civic values.

As clear by now, I view the demolition of cultural and religious structures in a different light -- whether done by vandals such as ISIS, but especially when done by the very owners of those structures, such as the Iowa City Unitarian-Universalist Society.

Let me be clear. I am the first to concede that the Society members and their leaders have both (a) the full legal right to work their will on their church and the land on which it stands, and (b) no obligation whatsoever to pay me any mind. Neither met with me, nor have I spoken with them. Although I am a member of, and modest contributor to, the Society (and presumably one of those with the longest continuous memberships), I have not been attending or otherwise active for some time. It was for that reason I thought it inappropriate to suddenly participate, as a member, in attempting to block, from within the congregation, a decision that was so nearly unanimously agreed upon, thereby contributing more to divisiveness than rational analysis.

Thus, I write here as a blogger, not as a Unitarian, about issues that go far beyond this single demolition by a single religious Society.

Selling the Pentacrest

All of which will ultimately bring us back to the Pentacrest buildings.

As I walked past the downtown Methodist and St. Mary's churches the other day, the Unitarians' move got me to thinking. Should we encourage the demolition and a move to the suburbs for other downtown churches? Presumably that would make their land more valuable. If they should move, why? If not, why not? If not for them, why for the Unitarians? The members of those two churches appear to be able to manage with something other than brand new, shinny modern churches.

Put aside the obligations of the Unitarians to preserve their own history. Put aside the values of National Historic Preservation. Just look at the profits of downtown commercial establishments and developers. Is it possible that the downtown area would be richer (literally and figuratively) with the current Unitarian Church right where it is than with yet one more apartment building in that spot?

If not, the University of Iowa, seemingly always in need of additional funding, should consider demolishing the Old Capitol and four Pentacrest buildings, selling the land, and rebuilding more modern structures somewhere on the edge of town.

The "revenue is needed" analysis of the Unitarian leaders asserts that their land, with the church (and the possibility there are wiser heads who will see to the church's preservation), results in the land and building only being worth $500,000. Whereas, once the building is demolished, their land alone will bring $2.5 million for their one-fifth acre.

The Pentacrest appears to be about 8.26 acres. At $2.5 million per one-fifth acre ($12.5 million per acre), that would make the Pentacrest worth (with the buildings demolished) about $103 million. That would be enough to make up for the loss from the Regents' new formula for over 8 years!

So I close as I began: "Once 'revenue is needed' is the Polestar for a university's financial decisions, its moral compass begins to spin as if it was located on the North Pole." The Academy's moral direction is important; for a religious organization it is essential.

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