Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Coming to 'Yes' on New Buildings and Demolition

June 30, 2015, 10:30 a.m.

And see: "But Seriously Folks . . . Preservation Policy," March 9, 2015.

Building Consensus on Iowa City's Vision, Future

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 30, 2015, p. A9

When it comes to building new structures, and preserving the old, Iowa City needs a process that produces consensus.

Iowa City’s downtown was laid out in 1839. Like Iowa’s 99 counties, it was literally designed for a horse and buggy age. One hundred years later, even with automobiles, the downtown neither had nor needed parking garages or parking meters. Its department stores, hardware stores, five movie theaters, barber shops (for the weekly “shave and a haircut”), Sears, Montgomery Ward and others with farm supplies, served Johnson County’s farmers on Saturdays and residents every day.

Today that function is served by the Coral Ridge Mall, with more than 100 businesses and 5,000 free parking spaces. There’s no way downtown Iowa City can regain its 20th century role in competition with that mall. And no way could it handle the crowds if it did.

For years I’ve advocated a vision for our downtown of a small, quaint, walkable, livable, residential center of history, entertainment and restaurants — along with the minimal number of banks, grocery stores and other businesses to sustain that resident population. That’s something downtown could become.

And because it is a vision shared by Marc Moen and the City Council, it is what it is becoming.

That’s not to say everyone agrees with every detail. There are disagreements about building design, height, and location; the housing balance between those living in half-million dollar condos and minimum-wage residents in low-income housing; and the destruction of historic structures, such as the Civil War cottages. (Photo credit: Josh O'Leary. Photo caption: "Three brick cottages, dating to the mid-1800s, stand in 600 block of South Dubuque Street in what was once the city's rail district. The Historic Preservation Commission deemed the cottages historically significant at its meeting on Thursday [December 11, 2014]." Andy Davis, "Panel: Dubuque St. Cottages Are Historically Significant," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 12, 2014.)

Then there’s the taxpayer funding of private ventures with TIFs and other benefits -— my major disagreement. See, http://tinyurl.com/pntu8gr. But even on that I agree with Moen, whom I also appreciate for his civic commitment, aesthetic creativity — and patience. As he said at the June 8 council meeting regarding the TIF decisions, “I know there’s a lot of controversy about this. ... It’s a political decision whether it’s a good idea or not.”

When a developer is invited to accept taxpayers’ money, whether from Congress or a city council, she should no more be criticized for accepting a foolish TIF than when she takes an irrational, legal, federal tax deduction. If blame there be, it should be laid at the feet of the politicians.

Moen is right. It is a political decision.

But political decisions call for political process. Democracy has never been perfect; it’s just the least worst of the alternatives. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote in 1958, “I am waiting for someone to really discover America.” Now at 96, he’s still waiting — and so are we.

Historically legitimate, traditional, public building projects, such as schools, libraries, court houses and jails, do have a democratic process. Governments can’t build them unless voters approve the sale of bonds — bonds repaid with taxpayers’ increased taxes.

Ironically, there is no similar democratic process to control government’s use of taxpayers’ money to fund for-profit, private building projects. It may be “a political decision,” but there is no political democratic process for arriving at that decision. Listening to citizen complaints after the decision has been made is not a meaningful democratic process.

The historic preservation process is worse. Many cities receive economic, as well as aesthetic, value from historic preservation. In Iowa City, with enough developer pressure, the council simply overrules the best judgment of historic preservation groups, zoning boards and previous planning documents. (Photo credit: Andy Davis. Photo caption: "Crews from Iowa City-based Noel’s Tree and Crane service work Wednesday [May 27, 2015] to tear down two cottages at 608 and 610 S. Dubuque St." Andy Davis, "2 remaining Civil War-era cottages on Dubuque St. torn down," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 29, 2015

Imagine if the council voted all the money necessary to preserve the homes and buildings we agree should be preserved, and the developers had to hold bake sales to add more floors to their high rises.

Maybe we need to vote. Maybe quality polling would be sufficient. What we must have is a better, more democratic process for evolving consensus regarding the Iowa City we want — and the “political decisions” about destruction of the old and building the new to get us there.
Nicholas Johnson, a native-born Iowa City resident, once served on the local school board, and maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org and the blog FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.

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