Iowa City zoning officials delay decision on Chauncey rezoning

Opponents want to limit building's height; current proposal calls for 20-story structure

Marc Moen’s plan for The Chauncey development, at the northeast corner of College and Gilbert streets. The 20-story mixe
Marc Moen’s plan for The Chauncey development, at the northeast corner of College and Gilbert streets. The 20-story mixed-use building has an estimated cost of $53.8 million, and Moen is asking officials for more than $13 million in tax incentives. (The Chauncey LLC)

Opponents of a 20-story building project proposed for the edge of downtown will have to wait until the next planning and zoning meeting to learn if the commission will recommend its rezoning proposal, which would limit the building's height, to the city council.

The Iowa City Planning and Zoning commission voted to defer their decision on whether to recommend the city council re-zone the piece of land to CB-5, which would cap the building's height at 75 feet, after nearly two hours of public comment.

The dispute over the structure comes after a 5-1 vote by the Iowa City City Council in January to negotiate a development agreement with the building's developer, Marc Moen.  The $53.8 million development, dubbed the Chauncey, has drawn heavy criticism due to its size, the fact that it does not include a space for the New Pioneer Co-op like some of the other options, and the $13.45 million in city financial assistance it will require. Should it move forward, the high-rise would include two movie theaters, a bowling alley and cafe, a 35-room hotel, two floors of office space and 12 floors of residential units.

Opponents of the building were hoping to stop the project from progressing by preventing the property — which is currently zoned for public use — from being re-zoned to what is called CB-10, which has no height limitation, to accommodate the height of the building.

Leaders of the opposition group, the Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow, argue that the 20-story structure would not fit in with the size of other structures in the area. They also argue that CB-5 zoning would better-fulfill the city's comprehensive plan, which calls for proper transition between the intensity of downtown development and surrounding residential neighborhoods.

"If this building is all it's cracked up to be, it's not going to be this singular density black hole that's going to suck development desire out of the surrounding blocks, it's going to be a magnet for other density," said Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow Co-founder Jon Fogarty. "That's why it belongs in a different part of the city."

Fogarty also questioned why the land was not re-zoned before the city issued an RFP, which, they say, would have opened a community discussion over what kind of building was appropriate for the site long before developers spent time and money drawing up plans. City officials have said the site was not re-zoned beforehand because there needed to be a conveyance of land in the near future in order for the public property to be re-zoned. The city is not expected to apply to have the property re-zoned to a CB-10 for a few months, as it is still in negotiations with Moen. 

The commission also heard from members of Trinity Episcopal Church — which neighbors the land to the west and opposes the project —  along with several community members and downtown business owners. Many opponents argued the development doesn't fit in with the feel and culture of Iowa City, while proponents said the development would ensure the lasting economic vitality of downtown.

"Anything that brings more people downtown is great for downtown business," said George Etre, owner of Takanami, 219 Iowa Ave. "I support more downtown entertainment options and things included in the downtown development. I was born and raised in Iowa City like many people here and I have seen downtown change and grow … I can tell you for the first time in a long time it is becoming exciting and I think projects like this only help with the vibrancy of downtown."Because the Commission only votes to make recommendations to the City Council — who has already voted to enter negotiations with Moen's team to start the project — the council has the final say on zoning issues. Both zonings would allow a variety of retail, office, personal service and residential uses. None of the final proposals for the property were under 75 feet in height. The next planning and zoning meeting is scheduled for April 18.

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