New University of Iowa frat house hinges on city parking waiver

Parking scarcity 'has long been a major concern'

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IOWA CITY — An 85-year-old, 21-bedroom house originally used by a University of Iowa fraternity but later converted to an assisted living facility could revert to its roots if Iowa City staffers exempt it from updated parking standards.

The 6,500-square-foot property that sits adjacent other fraternity houses at 716 North Dubuque St. provides just two actual parking spaces — with potential for up to four vehicles, according to Sarah Walz, assistant transportation planner for Iowa City.

The house, in use as Successful Living Supportive Housing since 1997, already has an exception from city parking mandates that require it provide one space for every three beds plus one space for every staff member when operating as assisted living.

But parking standards for fraternal living are higher — 16 spaces for 21 residents, rather than nine — meaning the property can’t begin housing 21 members of the UI’s Kappa Sigma chapter, as proposed, unless the Iowa City Board of Adjustments amends its parking waiver for the site.

Iowa City staff have concerns about such a waiver.

“The scarcity of on-street parking in the area has long been a major concern for neighborhood residents, and as the university grows its population of undergraduate students, the competition for on-street parking is likely to become more intense,” according to a staff recommendation to the board.

“There is also concern about disturbances that have been created by other fraternities in the immediate neighborhood,” the staff recommendation states. “The adjacent fraternity to the south has been expelled from its house by its own national organization due to behavioral issues.”

The property remains in use as an assisted living facility, but it’s operating below capacity, and Walz told The Gazette owners are looking to sell because they have different needs than what the space can provide.

Meanwhile, Kappa Sigma — billed as a potential occupant — does not have a house and currently functions out of the Iowa Memorial Union. According to its website, Kappa Sigma originally colonized on the UI campus in 1902 and then recolonized in 1969. It went dormant in 2003 until efforts to recolonize in 2012. Following a lengthy rechartering process, the chapter of 56 men was initiated in March 2014.

“Kappa Sigma does not currently have a house on the Iowa campus, but they have previously owned chapter structures at Iowa and are currently searching for a new property,” according to the group’s website.

The North Dubuque Street property has housed several fraternities over the years — before it was converted for other uses, according to Walz.

But some aren’t so sure it should revert.

One resident who lives just 400 feet from the house emailed city staff earlier this month to express concern about the waiver request, saying parking in the area already is insufficient for residents, guests, and maintenance workers.

“I remain extremely concerned about how this change will affect the neighborhood,” Jesse Singerman wrote. “It is very difficult — often impossible — to find parking on the street during the day, and it is not unusual to see cars blocking crosswalks and sidewalks in an effort to make use of every inch.”

But Mitch King — who owns KMB Management and is interested in buying the Dubuque Street property to convert for fraternal living — doesn’t believe the site is financially viable without the requested parking exemption.

King has proposed several remedies to the parking quandary aimed at encouraging residents to use alternative transportation and proving to city officials the parking waiver could work.

For starters, according to city documents, King said he’ll remove the outdoor deck and install 10 moped parking spaces and provide indoor parking for up to 21 bicycles. He also stressed that Kappa Sigma will continue to use off-site facilities for its weekly meetings and social functions, and he said the chapter’s national organization prohibits alcohol in its houses, according to the documents.

But none of those conditions are enforceable, according to the city, although the board could impose a condition revoking the parking exemption if the property gets more than three disorderly house convictions in 18 months.

Staff members, in their recommendation, said they agree some modification or waiver might be necessary to ensure a legal use that also provides enough income to maintain the property.

“Staff acknowledges that flexibility is appropriate,” Walz told The Gazette. “The question is, how much?”

Following an analysis, city staff recommended the board reduce minimum parking requirements to allow up to 13 residents.

“While staff concludes that additional residential density, beyond 11 roomers, is necessary in order to make a reasonable return on the property, staff does not believe the applicant has demonstrated that 21 residents is necessary to do this,” according to city documents.

The Board of Adjustment was supposed to take up the issue this week, but King asked members to wait one month and instead discuss it at their Feb. 17 meeting — giving him more time to answer staff questions.

King said his interested in buying the property hinges on the board’s decision.

“It all depends on what happens in February,” he said.

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