Staff Columnist

Iowa City spends months hemming and hawing over high rise

Will politicians debate an apartment project to death?

Iowa City Council members have spent many hours over the better part of a year discussing a single housing project. We still don’t know whether it will earn final approval from the city.

The developer of the proposed Pentacrest Gardens apartment buildings first filed a rezoning application in March. It earned unanimous approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission a month later, but has been stuck in limbo ever since, as City Council members work through a long list of their own concerns.

This would be a big project, among the biggest single housing developments in city history, with four buildings of up to 15 stories each near the University of Iowa campus. That warrants careful consideration, but six months is plenty of time for due diligence. As the process drags on, I worry about the message the city is sending to current and future property developers — propose a bold project, and face several months of bureaucratic hell.

After several delays, the council approved the rezoning request in September for an eight-story building on the site, but also imposed special conditions on the developer. Now the council is discussing whether to award height bonuses up to 15 stories, as permitted by city code. Yet again, the council will meet next week to discuss the proposal, though no vote is planned.

Mayor Jim Throgmorton has been the chief skeptic of the 15-story plan, putting forth a long list of objections, including in a 1,800 word memo submitted to council earlier this month. In short, he thinks the development is too big and “needs to be scaled down and stretched out over time.”

To the contrary, many people who actually rent apartments in Iowa City, including myself, are firmly in favor of increasing the number of available units. The UI Student Government liaison to the council has spoken favorably about the project, and other city council members see the need as well.

Other concerns revolve around policy and procedure. Throgmorton points out some of the city’s planning documents call for a smaller development on the proposed site. However, the zoning code — the actual legal document governing development — clearly allows for up to 15 stories at the city’s discretion.

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“Sometimes there’s the effort to place more emphasis on the comprehensive plan than on the code itself, and I think we have to keep in mind and in front of us what the actual code is, as much as what the comprehensive plan is,” Council member Susan Mims — who has previously described the council’s repeated delays as “moving the goal posts” — said at a recent meeting.

What is the point of a code allowing building heights up to 15 stories if some council members would never support such a project? The debate over Pentacrest Gardens has gone a long way toward sowing confusion and uncertainty for would-be builders.

“I don’t see large numbers of the community outraged about this project. It’s been on the agenda for 5 to 6 months now. … We need to provide clarity and consistency and not make it so difficult to realize the benefits of the bonus height provisions,” Council member Rockne Cole said.

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

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