Staff Columnist

IN IOWA | Iowa City leaders give mixed messages on rental housing

Several smaller apartment buildings now exist on a site where developers want to construct the largest residential project in Iowa City history, which would include four buildings of 15 stories each. (Madison Arnold/ The Gazette)
Several smaller apartment buildings now exist on a site where developers want to construct the largest residential project in Iowa City history, which would include four buildings of 15 stories each. (Madison Arnold/ The Gazette)

Iowa City renters have been left by their local government with nowhere else to go.

The City Council has spent the past year designing new regulations to prevent existing homes surrounding the downtown area from being turned into high-density rental buildings. Leaders said that was necessary for protecting established neighborhoods after a 2017 state law banned the city from regulating rental occupancy by familial status.

If renters can’t move farther away from downtown, the only other reasonable option is to move up by boosting the elevation and density of downtown apartments. No luck there, though, as the council now is resisting a proposed plan for the biggest residential building project in city history, just south of downtown in prime student housing territory.

At a meeting in March, city leaders put the proposed Pentacrest Gardens project — four 15-story buildings with up to 1,000 rental units total — on hold when they deferred approval of a necessary rezoning ordinance. This week, council members are expected to consult with Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission, which previously signed off on the proposed rezoning.

The discussion largely has revolved around procedural issues and the city’s criteria for approving height bonuses on planned construction. Yet some council members have made clear they’re skeptical of such a big building.

“I think it is far too dense. … I think the cumulative mass, the fact that they’re all 15 story buildings, is far greater than what we need now,” Mayor Jim Throgmorton said in March.

That resistance is confusing, given that the city’s own development plan calls for precisely this type of construction in the location in question, known as the Riverfront Crossings District, south of Burlington Street. That plan was adopted specifically to encourage high-density growth to take pressure off historic buildings downtown and family neighborhoods to the east and north.

Beyond the this specific proposal, council members also plan to revisit the previously approved height allowances at a future meeting.

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“It appears that this council is now preparing to move the goal posts when it comes to redevelopment of Riverfront Crossings,” council member Susan Mims wrote in a guest column in The Gazette, criticizing fellow members’ apparent reluctance to build upward.

Council members say their approval hinges on several factors, including ample green space surrounding the buildings, parking and other amenities. If those are legitimate concerns, they can be worked out through the city’s existing design review process. Approving the proposed zoning would not have bound the city to ultimately sign off on the 15-story buildings, or pre-empted it from making additional stipulations.

However, I suspect the real hold up is council members’ aversion to tall buildings and large groups of young people living in proximity. That may be an easy conclusion to reach for local politicians who own their own homes, but it’s endlessly frustrating for the thousands of young renters who need to live close to downtown.

The City Council still has the opportunity to do the right thing. By moving forward with Pentacrest Gardens, then can prove young people — and not just the tuition payments they bring to town — are welcome in Iowa City.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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