Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 6, 2009
Our View - University Heights needs to evolve to survive as city
At the same time a near record low percentage of eligible voters came out to vote in Tuesday's Iowa City Council election, more than half of the voters on the rolls turned out in University Heights to determine who gets to lead that enclave city on the eve of its 75th anniversary.
A full slate of six incumbents (one mayor, five councilors) faced six challengers to see who gets to rewrite the city's already out-of-date, three-year-old comprehensive plan and thus help determine how (and whether) the city will develop in the next few years.
The percentages show an almost evenly divided city. (The mayor's race was 54-46, and the council percentage ranged from 35 percent to 52 percent -- with most hovering around 50 percent.) But the record level turnout elected five of the six candidates on the "progressive" slate: incumbent mayor Louise From, incumbent councilors Stan Laverman and Amy Moore as well as challengers Mike Haverkamp and Patricia Yeggy.
These are the candidates who either voted for (or otherwise supported) the final plan for One University Place, a proposed development of condominiums and commercial property that was to be located on land now owned by St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. Voters also elected one member from the opposing slate of candidates, incumbent councilor Brennan McGrath, who provided one of the two "no" votes that sent the proposed development back to the drawing board because a rezoning request failed to receive a required supermajority.
In public forums and other statements, candidates from both slates have acknowledged that University Heights is going to need to develop more commercial property if the city is going to survive and to continue to provide (or to contract out) services for its residents. But the candidates disagree over how big those developments should be and how fast they should come online.
Likewise, although the city's comprehensive plan was finished in 2006, it was written before:
• The University of Iowa bought the University Athletic Club (thus triggering the eventual removal of the city's biggest commercial property from the tax rolls), and
• St. Andrew announced the congregation was considering whether to relocate (which would allow for in-fill residential and commercial development in University Heights without the city having to tear down anyone's home).
In response to these major changes in the city's development strategies, a slight majority of voters have backed the candidates who want to see development sooner than later -- the candidates who would support a project like the final incarnation of One University Place in order to help diversify the city's tax base and to increase the number of "gathering spaces" in which University Heights residents can come together as a community.
"We have to view the election results ... as a divided community that is leaning progressive," said Haverkamp, the top vote-getter among the 10 council candidates. "We can't talk about a mandate. ... But I think it's clear from the people who spoke at the forum that we, as the entire community, need to look at things like the comprehensive plan and come up with some kind of consensus about the direction in which we want to go."
If residents of University Heights want their city to continue to be a separate municipality -- rather than evolving into just another neighborhood in the surrounding Iowa City -- then they need to be open to change. As residents prepare for next year's 75th anniversary celebrations, they can honor what the city has been in the past while re-imagining a University Heights that can survive until at least its 100th anniversary.