Staff Columnist

When politicians pretend to be real estate developers

The result is a regulatory shell game with elected officials executing the sleight of hand

A storm that moved through Eastern Iowa Saturday, June 14, 2008 passes over Burlington Street in Iowa City near the brid
A storm that moved through Eastern Iowa Saturday, June 14, 2008 passes over Burlington Street in Iowa City near the bridge over the Iowa River. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

The discussion over a controversial apartment development in Iowa City drug out for almost three hours on Tuesday night. It was just the latest installment in a long series of long meetings over a project that has been in planning for two years.

The Pentacrest Garden Apartments on Court Street would be redeveloped into a 15-story complex to house more than 1,500 people. On Tuesday, the City Council approved a resolution allowing the full 15 stories, with two members dissenting.

Throughout this lengthy approval process, the developer has suffered from the whims of a finicky City Council. That’s the inevitable result of the city injecting politics into the planning process.


"Laws must be general, equal, and certain."


- Friedrich Hayek


Iowa City spends months hemming and hawing over high rise

The site of the proposed project is zoned for up to eight stories, with the possibility of “bonus” height if the project meets goals established in the city’s planning documents.

This development checks all the boxes the city’s progressive council could hope for — environmental sustainability, higher density and walkability, an enormous contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund, local architects, local union labor, a historic preservation commitment in another location, amenities for students, and reopening of Capitol Street to allow a view of the iconic Old Capitol.

That still wasn’t enough for swift approval. Leaving height bonuses to the council’s discretion, without clear and objective standards, is a recipe for bad governance.

Five years ago, the council considered another tall building. The Chauncey, recently opened on College Street, was opposed by critics who said they didn’t outright oppose tall buildings, but they thought such a development was better-suited for south of downtown.

Well, the Pentacrest Gardens is south of downtown in Riverfront Crossings, the zone where city planners say big buildings are appropriate. But the project still encountered the same recycled talking points against tall buildings.

It’s a classic bait-and-switch from the not-in-my-backyard-but-also-not-anywhere-else crowd.

Sara Barron, executive director of the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition, urged the council to support the project in light of the unprecedented $9 million boost it would give to the city’s affordable housing programs. She also offered a perfect summary of the problem with the city’s process.

“If we have a development process where you can earn 15 stories, which you have developed for Riverfront Crossings, there should be a clear path to earning that 15 stories. If not in this location, then where in Riverfront Crossings did you mean for it to be developed to this standard?” Barron said.

Construction already is governed by a complex web of regulations from all levels of government, made more uncertain by local politicians with levers of power. That makes it more expensive for developers to plan their projects, ultimately driving up the cost of housing.

As city leaders move forward, they should set out specific, measurable standards so businesses and consumers know what to expect.

As the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wisely prescribed, “Laws must be general, equal, and certain.” Here in Iowa City, we practice precisely the opposite, a regulatory shell game with elected officials executing the sleight of hand.

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

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