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Home / Update on 3 student housing projects in Iowa City
IOWA CITY — The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled several construction projects — including ones that include university student housing — but some developers are looking now at how to move forward.
At least two student housing projects appear to be moving forward, with another planning when it would be best to proceed.
“As the pandemic came on the scene in March (2020) and students largely stayed home … I think there was certainly a lot of questions in the marketplace about what's the future of student housing looks like and what supply will be needed,” City Manager Geoff Fruin said.
Enrollment at the University of Iowa in Iowa City dropped this last fall, continuing a slide beginning in fall 2017 and worsening during the pandemic. The UI’s fall 2021 enrollment was 29,909 students, down 539, or 2 percent, from fall of 2020.
The UI is predicting a 4 percent one-year jump next fall to 31,206 students and is working on a five-year plan to grow first-year enrollment. The goal — which President Barbara Wilson spoke about during Iowa City Area Business Partnership’s annual banquet last month — is having 33,500 to 34,000 students.
UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck told The Gazette the university is working to return to pre-pandemic enrollment, with a goal of having stable enrollment year over year. The UI had 32,323 students in fall 2017 before the slide began.
The pandemic has reduced occupancy in the university housing on campus, with fiscal 2022 having 85 percent occupancy. On-campus housing occupancy is expected to increase in fiscal 2023 to 91 percent and hold steady over the new few years.
The university’s enrollment rates and projections are a “huge factor” on decisions related to student housing projects in the city, said Rob Decker, co-owner of Axiom Consultants, an Iowa City-based engineering firm. Axiom Consultants is working with the developers of three projects The Gazette checked in on.
At Iowa City Area Development Group’s winter investor meeting last month, Fruin said the city thinks student housing “will be back in a big way in 2022.” He told The Gazette he was alluding to projects discussed before the pandemic struck that have resumed discussions about moving forward now.
Each of the three projects — 21 S. Linn St., 315 E. Prentiss, 12 E. Court St. — have a “fairly long history with the city,” Fruin said.
“These aren't necessarily new projects coming forward but projects that have been previously planned, discussed, in some cases approved by City Council, and appear to be moving forward at this time,” Fruin said.
The Gazette checked in on the progress of the three large developments, all of which have a student housing component. Two of the developments are working to get their site plan approved by the city while another has remained quiet since already receiving approval from the Iowa City Council.
Fruin said a common misconception is that development is imminent after a rezoning vote — which isn’t necessarily the case.
"It's definitely not uncommon for something to get legislative approval and not move forward right away,“ he said, adding how sometimes the owner or developer hasn’t fully secured finances or completed the detailed design work, for example.
A major site plan — which is what has been submitted for 21 S. Linn St. and 315 E. Prentiss — encompasses a variety of details, Anne Russett, the city’s senior planner said. A site plan has not yet been submitted for 12 E. Court St.
A major site plan has an aerial view of the site with the building footprint, as well as information related to parking, landscaping, lighting and other city regulations, she added. The plan doesn’t look at the building code — that is submitted separately.
21 S. Linn Street
Chicago-based developer CA Ventures submitted a site plan for 21 S. Linn St. in early February. The site plan failed its first review on Feb. 22.
The plan — which appears similar to a proposal submitted by the developer last year — includes 2,511 square feet for commercial space, as well as 228 dwelling units and 255 bedrooms, according to city records.
The downtown space is the former location of the U.S. Bank drive-through, which was demolished late last year.
Russett said it is typical for site plans to fail their initial review.
“Usually, these things take several rounds of review before staff can say, ‘OK, it meets all of our requirements. We approve it,’” Russett said.
Russett added there are various reasons why a site plan fails. Some general examples, she said, can be the caliber of trees is wrong, the plants being proposed aren’t tall enough or the parking calculation isn’t correct. The city also includes comments with the failed site plan on what needs to be addressed, which get sent back to the developer, Russett said.
Prior to purchasing the land, CA Ventures, working with Axiom Consultants, submitted an application to the Board of Adjustment last August for a special exception to parking rules for the Linn Street building but was denied by a 3-2 vote. The company’s request for a reconsideration in September was not granted.
The proposal at the time was for a 13-story mixed-use building at this location. The proposal included 229 residential units, with 188 studio or one-bedroom apartments and 41 two-bedroom apartments.
CA Ventures previously developed Rise at Riverfront Crossings, a 15-story student housing development with more than 300 units.
E. Prentiss and S. Gilbert
Plans for a student housing development on E. Prentiss and S. Gilbert streets are looking to more forward under a new developer.
Alabama-based developer Capstone Collegiate Communities wanted to build an eight-story student housing complex in the Riverfront Crossings district. The project passed the City Council in 2019. A year later, the council approved a height bonus for the apartment building.
Capstone, however, did not more forward with the project or purchasing the site, Russett said. A different developer — Florida-based 908 Group — is interested in the site, which includes 625 S. Gilbert St. and 305 and 315 E. Prentiss St. 908 Group is also working with Axiom Consultants.
The 908 Group had to go through the design review process again because of slight changes it were making, such as proposing the development as a seven-story building instead of eight, Russett said. City records say the property will have 250 dwelling units with 382 bedrooms.
The design review plans were approved by the city last week, Russett said.
Three site plans have been submitted so far but failed, with the most recent plan failing March 9. A fourth site plan is currently under review.
"It's getting pretty close to the point where we should be able to approve it soon,“ Russett said about the site plan.
12 E. Court St
Rob Decker, co-owner of Axiom Consultants and project manager for 12 E. Court St., said the property owners are waiting for the best time to move forward with the development.
“The biggest reason for that is not surprising — it's COVID and the economic supply chain issues,” Decker told The Gazette, adding how remote learning and vacancies likely have also played a role.
“Based on all those factors that are putting a lot of volatility in the market cost wise, they are just reevaluating the project periodically.”
The property is owned by the Clark family, who owns Apartments Downtown Inc. The family is major landlords in downtown Iowa City, operating under names such as Apartments Downtown and Apartments Near Campus.
The project is revisited every few months to see where things are at, Decker said. Decker added he thinks “at some point they will be” ready to move forward.
The plans for the development are still the same, he said.
The proposed design includes two 15-story towers with 820 units and 1,575 beds. The development is expected to feature a wellness center with a track, pool, basketball court and workout facilities; study areas and collaboration spaces; and a rooftop restaurant.
The City Council approved height bonuses for the development in February 2020.
Demolition of the site — where the Pentacrest Garden Apartments currently are located — gets reevaluated on an annual basis coinciding with the lease schedule, Decker said.
“As we approach the fall here, we'll be doing a big evaluation of all of that, again,” Decker said.
Russett said the city has not received a site plan application for 12 E. Court St. City records do not show demolition requests at the address.
“It's been two years (since the height bonus approval), but at the same time, it's a huge project,” Russett said.
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