Local Government

Iowa City officials envision major park improvements

Smaller parks are getting more immediate upgrades

Kieran Ware, 3, of Cedar Rapids plays on the playground at Mercer Park while visiting his grandfather in Iowa City on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. The playground is the largest in Iowa City and opened earlier this year. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Kieran Ware, 3, of Cedar Rapids plays on the playground at Mercer Park while visiting his grandfather in Iowa City on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. The playground is the largest in Iowa City and opened earlier this year. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — If you like to bike, hike, skateboard, play Frisbee golf, let your dog run off the leash or just plain picnic, one of Iowa City’s more than three dozen parks has a place for you.

But recreation planners envision more — much more.

Last week, city Parks and Recreation Director Juli Seydell Johnson — new to the job in January — presented those visions to the City Council, outlining many of the updates coming to neighborhood parks and detailing potential futures for the major parks.

The presentation was intended to start a conversation with the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission and council members to help identify priorities, said City Manager Geoff Fruin. Some of the plans would cost millions to make true.

Johnson said the park system is already “a huge community connector” and the master plans would only help grow that in the future.

Three of the most extensive plans cover the East Side Sports Complex, Lower City Park and Hickory Hill Park. The motivation to create these plans were all a bit different but included flood mitigation work or simply vacant land that needed a use.

These funds are expected to come mostly from grants or partnerships with organizations like the Youth Sports Association. Seydell Johnson said some funding could come from city dollars as well.

For the most part, everything Parks and Rec develops is free and open to the public. But the city may charge rental fees for athletic complexes or the Riverside Festival Stage.


Officials have also developed a master plan for the Riverfront Crossings District Park, but the first phase of that project is already underway.

The funding for these three plans — which could total about $48.5 million in all, according to Seydell Johnson’s presentation — largely remains a question mark.

“We don’t have the staff or financial capacity to pursue three major park projects at one time,” Fruin said.

The plans, however, are broken into phases that would allow the city to build piece by piece if necessary. Fruin said the city can begin to identify potential funding sources for the projects as well.

“I know that’s going to be a challenge for all of us down the road, but I think we’re all willing to work together to get something done and keep the community moving forward,” said Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Clayton Claussen.


The East Side Sports Complex park would be on Taft Road near the new Hoover Elementary School. Seydell Johnson said the park was designed to be a “first-class athletic complex” as well as to serve the developing neighborhood.

The proposal calls for 10 baseball fields, a dog run, a central field space, a playground, an area for a possible future indoor athletic facility and more. It’s broken into three phases and comes with a $13.8 million price tag — not including the indoor facility.


Seydell Johnson said the plan for City Park was created in a way that keeps some aspects like amusement rides while making the park more usable and less floodprone. The park, on E. Park Road, was established in 1906.

“This park has such history here in Iowa City and is such a community icon,” she said.


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If the city uses this plan, the park would lose its two small ponds. But a bigger wetland area would be established closer to the Iowa River, which is one of the most expensive aspects of the proposal. It also would contain an ice skating trail, an adventure playground and an updated festival stage area.

This plan is divided into five phases, which could be built over six or seven years. This is the most expensive plan of them all, and totals more than $33 million.


The least expensive park plan — and the only one with funding already available — is Hickory Hill Park. For each of the next three years, Parks and Rec can spend $200,000 for the park on Conklin and Bloomington streets.

The city didn’t want to change much about the nature of the park, so consultants identified high, medium and low priorities. The high priority items, which should take up most of the budgeted money, are secondary trails as well as bridge and signage improvements.

The lower priority items, which include a natural playscape, bike parking and more, would increase the total price tag to roughly $1 million.

“I know that it’s highly watched out there. People are very interested in it,” Seydell Johnson. “People really love this park and love it the way it is.”


While these grand plans seem far off in the future with much of the funding still up in the air, Iowa City residents are seeing improvements around their numerous smaller neighborhood parks become a reality.

One of the biggest neighborhood projects came in Mercer Park. A new playground cost $220,000 and is the biggest in the city.


Other parks like Highland Park, Tower Court Park and Pheasant Hill Park have received or are planned to get new playground equipment.

Willow Creek Park has had restroom, trail and drainage work. Additionally, Happy Hollow Park and Frauenholtz-Miller Park should have a new shelter in the spring.

Seydell Johnson also said no matter where Iowa City residents live, they can expect to see better accessibility throughout the park system in the near future.

The next steps for these plans would be to allow the Parks and Recreation Comission to identify just what members would like to tackle first. member will then discuss how each project could be funding and when it should appear in front of the council.



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