Condo project is No. 1, if not only, issue in University Heights

Topic dominates council meetings and is likely focus of election

Local developer Jeff Maxwell (right) sits with his attorney Thomas Gelman (left) as they listen to a debate at the Unive
Local developer Jeff Maxwell (right) sits with his attorney Thomas Gelman (left) as they listen to a debate at the University Heights City Council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the University Club. Maxwell's plans to construct a $44.9 million condo project has become the hot topic in the small community surrounded by Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS — People running for public office typically don’t like to be called a one-issue candidate, but in the upcoming election, University Heights is effectively a one-issue town.

A relatively large condominium project proposed for the small town has been dominating City Council meetings for three years. As a result, many people see the Nov. 8 election — when all five council seats and the mayor are up for election — as a referendum on the project.

“It’s going to be the predominant issue by far,” said council member Brennan McGrath, a project opponent who is seeking re-election. “It will probably be a 75 (percent) to 90 percent deciding factor in the way people vote.”

At the center of the debate is the $44.9 million project known as One University Place that local developer Jeff Maxwell wants to build at 1300 Melrose Ave., which is a half-mile west of Kinnick Stadium and currently home to St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.

It is to have 69 condominiums, plus commercial space, in two buildings on the 5.3-acre site.

For supporters, the project is needed to boost the budget of a city whose growth is restricted by an inability to expand outward. University Heights, which has about 1,000 residents, is surrounded by Iowa City and

is made up almost exclusively of single-family homes.

Critics say the project is too large and doesn’t fit the character of the town.

The project currently has 3-2 support on the City Council. There are eight City Council candidates, and they are evenly split for and against the project.

The opponents are incumbents McGrath and Rosanne Hopson and challengers Rachel Stewart and Jan Leff.

The supporters are incumbents Pat Yeggy and Mike Haverkamp and challengers Amanda Whitmer and Jim Lane. Incumbent Stan Laverman is not seeking re-election.

Mayor Louise From is running unopposed. She’s in favor of the project but does not have a vote on the council.

Project supporters said they believe other issues also are important to voters. Whitmer, however, acknowledged she had not heard from anyone on anything else.

“It’s the one thing that’s mostly on people’s minds,” she said.

Longtime University Heights resident Alice Haugen said One University Place, which she opposes at its current size, will be the main issue for voters.

“It’s not just the project itself, but how it’s gone forward,” said Haugen, 59.

In December 2010, the council voted to rezone the church property to accommodate the project. That happened just before a special election to fill a council seat, which saw council-appointee and project supporter Lane defeated by project opponent Hopson.

Around the same time, a community survey found that about 56 percent of respondents were against the project and 39 percent for.

The results of the election and survey bolstered critics’ claims that the majority of the public opposed the project.

With recent City Council meetings going past midnight, there is talk that the council is preparing to ram through votes on the project before a potential shake-up of the council majority with next month’s election.

Among the items currently being debated are the developer’s agreement and the document that would define the scope of the project. Developer Maxwell also has asked for $6.5 million in tax breaks from the city, but on Tuesday night his team asked the council to put that on hold for now.

City Attorney Steve Ballard recommended all three be considered at the same time.

Yeggy denied the council is rushing things, saying critics have been trying to derail the project for years and as a result have slowed progress. Yeggy sees One University Place as vital to the city’s future. It has maxed out its property tax levy rate, she said, and can’t grow outward.

A financial analysis conducted by an outside firm concluded the city could run out of cash reserves in a decade if there’s little or no growth in revenue and expenses continue to grow. Service cuts also may need to be considered.

“I think that the city can’t remain viable without new income,” Yeggy said.

Leff and Hopson said with the proposed tax breaks, which would come in the form of tax increment financing, it could be two decades before the city would receive any significant new revenue.

They said they could support a much smaller development on the site.

“I just think that (what’s proposed) changes that feel of a residential community,” Leff said.

Maxwell noted that he recently decreased the number of condos, by 10, and some of the commercial space in response to public concern.

There are still a lot of steps before the project becomes a reality. The church isn’t even scheduled to vote on whether to sell the land for a couple of years, although the current belief is it will agree to sell.

Maxwell said construction is four or five years away and he remains committed to the project. “We think it’s a perfect fit for the community. ... We’re not going anywhere,” he said.


Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.