Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Development means changes for U. Heights

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 9, 2009)

Discussion about the controversial One University Place -- a residential and commercial development proposed to be located on land now occupied by St. Andrew Presbyterian Church -- reaches the University Heights City Council tonight.

Over the past few months, residents and the developer have gone back forth in three informational sessions about the project. On May 20, the University Heights Zoning Commission voted 3-2 against rezoning the property for the development. And now, because of significant opposition by the neighboring property owners, a supermajority of the council is required if the development is to go forward.

We think the developer, Jeff Maxwell, has proven responsive to the concerns raised by the city officials and residents. He seems to have recognized just how much his proposal would challenge the way the residents of University Heights view their city. And, after lengthy discussions, he has scaled back the project to a version we think the city council should approve.

Our main concern about the project -- the traffic it would add to the already congested Melrose Avenue -- has been addressed through plans to:

• Update the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Sunset Street to include more left-turn lanes and to straighten the north leg of the intersection to a more 90-degree angle and

• To add a left turn lane along Melrose in front of the new development.

John Yapp, executive director of the Johnson County Council of Governments, said those changes would "create a much safer situation from a traffic perspective than what is there now." We think the proposed changes also would help improve the traffic flow on this street enough to allow for the increased number of cars that a new commercial and residential development would bring.

And it's clear that increased traffic is an inevitable consequence of nearly any development plans for the St. Andrew's property.

Unless the church were to sell the land to another religious community -- or unless the church decided against relocating to the land it's already bought on Iowa City's western edge -- the traffic rate is going to change. Some projects might cause less of an increase than the residential and commercial mix offered in One University Place, but any feasible development of this property is going to bring more cars -- as well as alter University Heights' current mix of single-family homes, limited number of apartments and very limited number of public buildings.

It also seems the most likely way University Heights can survive as a distinct city is to alter its current character and allow for a development of this size:

• One big enough that tax increment financing might be a way to pay for needed infrastructure improvements on Melrose.

• One big enough that, after the period of tax incremental financing elapses, the development provides a needed infusion of residential and commercial property dollars into the city's coffers. Without such an infusion, University Heights may have to start cutting services or raising taxes to the point that residents wonder if they wouldn't be better off as an Iowa City neighborhood rather than as a separate city.

Other developers proposing a project of this size may not be as amenable to city and resident input as Maxwell has been. The University of Iowa, which already owns property adjacent to St. Andrew and has the right of first refusal on the church property, probably wouldn't be as cooperative in any development plans it might impose on the property.

Rather than view One University Place as a stark departure from what University Heights has represented in the past, the city council should recognize the proposed development as an example of what University Heights could be growing into if it is to survive as an independent city at all.

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