Guest Columnist

Building heights and Riverfront Crossings' future

The Riverfront Crossings area in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Riverfront Crossings area in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Iowa City Council’s consideration of a rezoning application for 12 E. Court St. in the Riverfront Crossings District has sparked a kerfuffle about high-rise buildings and the future of development in Iowa City.

The debate generally centers on building heights. Whether one supports high-rise buildings — that is, any building more than nine stories — typically is framed as an aesthetic preference: one likes them, or not. Further, some high-rise advocates cast those with concerns regarding the potentially negative effects of high-rise buildings as “anti-development.” What to make of these claims? Is the question of building heights a matter of personal taste, or are there other factors to consider?

DOWNTOWN, RIVERFRONT CROSSINGS PLAN

Building heights in Riverfront Crossings were addressed in the 2013 Downtown & Riverfront Crossings Master Plan. The plan was adopted after a three-year public planning process. The plan’s vision is to create mixed-use neighborhoods of various character and density; safe, walkable streets; and easily accessible parks and green spaces.

Central to the plan was a market analysis of the anticipated demand for commercial and residential development within the study area in the foreseeable future. The plan then identified potential sites where that development might occur — 171 sites in all.

The market analysis of Riverfront Crossing’s overall development potential, translated into the plan’s development yield analysis on those 171 sites, envisions a Riverfront Crossings District that is three-dimensionally illustrated on page 52 of the plan.

The plan relies mostly on midrise buildings, ranging from four to nine stories, distributed in a density gradient across the study area. The south downtown neighborhood has the highest density, with development density tapering off farther from downtown, except along portions of the Iowa River. Buildings of more than nine stories were proposed for five sites east of the Iowa River: the Linn/Court site (the Rise); the Burlington/Clinton site (Hilton Garden Inn); and three sites near the new Riverfront Crossings Park.

RIVERFRONT CROSSINGS’ MIDRISE URBANISM

What are the benefits of the midrise development as recommended by the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan? By distributing the development potential over the entire Riverfront Crossings District, the plan achieves an important goal: urbanizing the entire district at a higher density. The higher density over a large area has many co-benefits:

• More streets are activated by more pedestrians and bicyclists.

• More streets are safer with more residents living near street level.

• Traffic congestion and pollution are diluted over a wider area.

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• More blocks with at least 16 units/acre to support neighborhood commercial and public transit.

POTENTIAL FOR HIGH-RISE DEVELOPMENT

Following the adoption of the plan, a form-based code was developed to implement it. Approved by council in 2014, the Riverfront Crossings form-based code allows, through the provision of up to seven bonus floors, up to 15 stories in the south downtown and park neighborhoods. The Rise, at Linn/Court Streets, was the first project in south downtown to reach 15 stories. If approved with maximum bonus heights, the 12 E. Court St. project would consist of four 15-story buildings.

What are the consequences of allowing building heights significantly exceeding the recommended heights in the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan? By concentrating higher densities on certain development sites, high-rise buildings reduce the extent and vibrancy of the urban sphere of redevelopment envisioned in the plan. In addition, high-rises as a building type have certain potentially negative effects. Among them:

• Higher building costs, resulting in higher rents.

• Increased shadow effects and loss of sky views at street level.

• Obstructed views of civic landmarks, such as Old Capitol.

• Increased speculation on land values, because of the potential for taller building heights allowed under the bonus height provisions.

For these reasons, in addition to the market analysis, high-rises were given a limited role in the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan. In addition to the Hilton Garden Inn and The Rise, three 10-story buildings are envisioned near Riverfront Crossings Park and the Iowa River. In downtown south of Burlington Street, the plan indicates moderately sized high-rises at key street corners, primarily along the Burlington Street corridor.

A VIBRANT RIVERFRONT CROSSINGS DISTRICT

Iowa City is fortunate to have the opportunity to transform Riverfront Crossings into a model of urban redevelopment. Grounded on the market realities of anticipated demand for housing and commercial development, it optimizes the benefits of growth over the entire district, while creating a range of vibrant neighborhoods. The plan includes buildings of all types and sizes, including high-rises, carefully placing them to achieve a coherent composition of city-making.

So, when a member of City Council or the community raises concerns about rezoning applications such as 12 E. Court St., those concerns are not about personal “aesthetic preferences” or being “anti-development.” Rather, they are about whether 12 E. Court St. or any other proposed project is consistent with the vision in the Riverfront Crossings Master Plan, a vision enthusiastically embraced by the Iowa City community.

• John Thomas serves on the city council in Iowa City, representing District C.

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