The University of Iowa University of Iowa
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RT Blog Post: Development in Downtown Iowa City

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By KRUI News Reporter Lauren Siebert
lmsiebert@gmail.com

On Saturday, March 24th, the KRUI News Team invited Anna Wickes, social media guru of Revival Clothing Store, and Tara Cronbaugh, president, head of accounting and owner of The Java House, into the studio to discuss development in downtown Iowa City.

Many Iowa City residents are familiar with the changes that have been taking place in downtown since the 2008 floods, but the city council and local business owners and developers have been working on comprehensive growth plans for the city since 1997.

Called the Comprehensive Plan, it defines a vision and a set of policies to guide decision-making about growth in different areas in the city. The plan has gone through different updates since 1997, and city officials are currently considering how the plan will be altered to guide development decisions over the next 10-20 years.

The public planning process for the updated Comprehensive Plan is called Iowa City 2030. The city recently held public meetings in February to share their thoughts about city growth and to invite citizens to work in small groups to give feedback on what how they would like the city to develop over the next two decades.

One common issue for city officials who are considering questions about downtown development is the economic challenge posed by the growth of shopping districts in neighboring Coralville over the last 15 years.

Since the construction of the Coral Ridge Mall in 1998 in particular, Iowa City has struggled hold its own against economic expansion in Coralville. They must also negotiate the tricky terrain between pulling in larger national chain stores and supporting local business owners in the downtown.

In September, the city emailed an online survey students and residents asking questions about their shopping needs for downtown. The survey is part of a larger study of the downtown that was commissioned by the city of Iowa City and the University of Iowa from a Virginia-based firm called Divaris Real Estate.

Though the city was hopeful about the impact of the survey, that excitement quickly gave way to controversy as critics argued it had too much focus on bringing national retailers to downtown. Others criticized that individuals could take the survey multiple times, potentially skewing results.

City officials responded that the use of large chain stores in the survey was only intended to provide planners with indications about consumer habits and preferences, not to mean that specific stores would move into the downtown.

When it comes to downtown development, there is also pressure on city planners to balance the needs of both students and local residents who many or not be associated with the University. After the online survey had been distributed there was concern that not enough had been done to make sure that the survey reached students at the University of Iowa. In response, city and university officials made a bigger push to promote the online tool through student media and email. 

In addition to Iowa City 2030, and the downtown survey, there are other indications of downtown development. The city council recently approved the formation of a self-supported municipal improvement district in Iowa City. The SSMID would allow property owners in the downtown and Northside neighborhoods to impose a tax on themselves. Funds raised through the tax will be used to hire a downtown manager to promote downtown as a place for business and residential for young professionals.

Both the SSMID and the redesign of Washington Street from one-way to two-way traffic will likely have both positive and negative implications for downtown visitors and businesses.