The City Council of Iowa City recently approved another multi-million dollar tax-payer TIF-funded development in the downtown area. The project is called The Chauncey.

I have been and continue to be a strong supporter of the Chauncey, and wrote an article in its defense. I also like some of the other modern buildings, TIF funded and otherwise, in Iowa City such as Park@201, the Hotel Vetro, and the Vogel House which I refer to as ARTchitecture or habitable art. In addition to finding them attractive, I think the mixed use spaces that increase urban density can have a positive impact on our community. I maintain the IowaCityArchitecture.com website that features news about various Iowa City area development projects and initiatives.

My advocacy for the Chauncey and defense of controlled TIF use got the attention of Rockne Cole, a local attorney who is one of the primary critics of the the Chauncey and TIF use in general. He’s also running for City Council.

Rockne’s response to my views about the Chauncey surprised me. Rather than a lengthy writing attempting to publicly discredit me, or criticize my opinions, Rockne’s response was a cheerful and friendly: “Let’s meet for coffee!”

I’ve consistently been civil in my support of various local initiatives. Even when critics respond with personal attacks, I remain positive. In local politics, some people can get mean spirited, but I think it’s important to remain respectful to foster honest and meaningful discussions that help promote collective and inclusive community-engaged decision-making.

For this reason, Rockne’s offer to meet was meaningful to me. We had a nice discussion, and it was good to hear first hand from Rockne about his hopes for Iowa City as well as his concerns about the direction our community is heading in. Though we have some areas of disagreement, there was much that we have in common with regard to the importance of building a walkable, livable, sustainable, more economically equitable community. I was impressed with how knowledgeable and well read Rockne is on the topic of urban planning.

As mentioned above, I’ve been pleased with some of the development projects we’ve recently seen in the Iowa City area. Given my preferences and interests, someone like Tim Conroy would be a logical choice as a City Council member who would represent my views. Yet, with Rockne having been the only candidate of the eight running for City Council to reach out to me, and given my interest in reconciliation and collaboration, the idea of supporting Rockne appealed to me.

As I’ve asked around, the majority of people I know don’t share my enthusiasm for modern architecture, they are upset about what they feel is a City Council that serves the special interests of local business rather than the public interest, and they are opposed to the use of public taxes for private enterprise.

There’s a growing tide of discontent. At the local level, it’s represented by TIFs — the unilateral collection of public funds for private enterprise without broad public input. We see public discontent at the state level, most recently with public opinion being largely ignored in the decision process to select a new University president. There’s discontent with a variety of issues at the federal level, which is summarized well by a typical Bernie Sanders speech.

Whether you count yourself among the wealthy or the huddled masses, I think most people would agree that there seems to be an increasing unfairness and a widening chasm between the few who govern our society and the many that make our society work.

What I’ve become increasingly concerned about (despite seeing what I perceive to be ‘win after win’ for my own interests) is the growing sense that the majority of our local community members are underrepresented. They are invited to collectively participate in the obligatory collection of taxes (TIFs) but then unable to participate in a democratic decision process of how those funds will be spent. To me, something doesn’t quite seem right about that. It’s like taxation without representation.

I think it would be healthy and beneficial for our community to have a balanced City Council that more broadly represents the interests and concerns of all our local community members. I think Rockne’s presence on the City Council would help bring a balance that can more equitably represent presently underserved members of our community.

In my article defending selective TIF use, one of the criteria is dollar cost averaging. I don’t believe TIFs are a tool that should be universally rejected or accepted. I think there should be a transparent set of criteria that are publicly developed and supported. We don’t presently have that for Iowa City. What we have in Iowa City seems to be a rubber stamp for almost all business development requests.

I’m concerned that a long-term concentration of TIF use in the downtown Iowa City area could result in blight elsewhere as neighborhoods needing our support are neglected.

While I admittedly enjoy modern architecture, I wouldn’t like to see the entirety of Iowa City’s historic buildings leveled to make room for exclusively new construction. An excessive number of high-rise buildings would block out the view of the existing ones. Runaway TIF use could result in a skyline that dominates rather than enforces a diversity of architecture.

Karen Kubby’s opinion piece published by the Press Citizen today outlines the current issues facing our community as:

“…Racial justice, affordable housing, development density, sustainability and economic development.”

I think that list is a good place for us to start as a community. Those are issues we can collectively agree about and work on — if only we can sit down at the same table together. Which brings me back to the topic of Rockne Cole running for City Council.

I believe we need a balance of public-interest progressives as well as business-minded conservatives that will effectively work together to solve some of the pressing issues that our community is struggling with. Rockne Cole strikes me as someone who will take the initiative to reach out and sincerely work with others to find collaborative solutions. He’s demonstrated that by reaching out to me. So, that’s why, this time around, I’m supporting Rockne Cole for City Council. I’d encourage you to consider what you can do to create a City Council that is as diverse as our community, and offers broader representation for all our community members.

Greg Johnson
AboutGregJohnson.com

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Author’s Note: I’d originally used a sarcastic writing technique to create a juxtaposition with the following statement: “Whether you count yourself among the wealthy (congratulations) or the huddled masses (my condolences), I think most people would agree that there seems to be an increasing unfairness and a widening chasm between the few who govern our society and the many that make our society work.” Subsequently, I removed the slightly flippant ‘congratulations’ and ‘my condolences’ comments out of concern these would be misinterpreted as disrespectful or uncaring of the millions who are represented by the ‘huddled masses’ reference. (3 Nov 2015 @ 23:20)