Iowa City

Summary. Below is a video panel discussion about development in Iowa City. The panel discussion is led by Yale Cohn. (Photo: The Lodge, by Greg Johnson)

From the broadcast description, “Greg Delzer, owner of Defunct Books, JoAnn Larpenter Sinclair from GSpot Hair Design, and developer and historic preservationist Mark Mccallum talking about Iowa City’s zoning codes, how they’re endangering independent small businesses in favor of monstrously over-sized student apartment buildings, and how they can and should be changed to help preserve the diversity of small and locally-owned businesses which make Iowa City such a special place to live in before it’s too late.”

Commentary. Below is a commentary by Greg Johnson about development in Iowa City.

I’d like to think that Iowa City is a welcoming community with regard to developers wanting to invest their money and build up the community.

I tried on numerous occasions to get a statement from Alan Construction for an article on my website. For two weeks, they refused to answer my phone calls and emails. So, I finally gave up. I always seek to offer a fair and balanced presentation of the news. In this case, it was difficult since I could get nobody from the developer’s side to provide an insight into what they are doing or why.

I don’t like it when we demonize an entire group of people (such as developers). Most of the developers I’ve met, I actually enjoy and like as people, although I don’t know them really well beyond our Facebook friendships. I like what the Moen group has done with the Vogel building — having Akar on the ground level, a business (architect) in the basement, and the apartments above seems like a good use of space. I like the idea of new urbanism, mixed use spaces, and walkable communities that puts residential, business, parks, playgrounds, and shopping in a few blocks of shared space — as an alternative to business parks, malls, and suburbs all 30 minutes apart.

I appreciate some of the older red-brick buildings we have here in Iowa City. Yet, I’m probably a minority in this regard: I also like the modern look of metal and glass, such as the Vogel House, Plaza Towers, and Whiteway 2000.

How do we find that balance between the quaint old-world Disney-esque two-story buildings on Dubuque Street between Iowa and Washington; and the Plaza Towers, for example. Or, can the two co-exist. I was talking to one business owner recently who begrudgingly was telling me about their downtown building from the 1800s that was extremely expensive to maintain. Should the public’s nostalgia and romanticized views of older buildings be maintained by business owners?

I feel a little sorry for these developers. Particularly after reading Nila’s Press Citizen opinion piece. I can imagine it’s a huge drain of time and money to keep these old buildings going. Also, they aren’t very environmentally friendly since they use lots of energy to heat and cool.

We’ve had some successful renovations in Iowa City. Stuit Hall is a great example, because it is LEED certified, but I’m guessing for most developers its perceived as too expensive to renovate so they choose to demolish and start again.

There are so many wonderful new materials and technologies for construction these days. New homes and buildings can be much more environmentally friendly than old ones. Many older homes are technologically like a Model T car compared to a Prius.

I generally don’t like old buildings and “historic districts” — if it means that people are required to live in energy consuming old homes with wavy single pane glass.

Developers and property owners are business people first. Presumably more money can be made as buildings go higher vertically. Taxes are, in part, calculated on the amount of land you have (as well as building value). So, from a purely business standpoint, a developer will want to create a building with the greatest revenue generating capability possible. If taxes go higher, buildings must go higher to generate the revenue needed to profit.


  • As a community, what kinds of options, suggestions, alternatives, or solutions do we have to offer developers?
  • How can developers invest huge amounts of money in Iowa City, while at the same time keeping residents happy?
  • Beyond complying with building codes, zoning, and local laws, should a home owner, business owner, or developer have their lives controlled by citizens?
  • Should developers be required to construct buildings that adhere to an older style of design/appearance?
  • Should developers be required to keep existing buildings and renovate according to LEED standards? Can the city offer funds or tax breaks to help with this?

It would be nice if there were a local citizen-developer alliance that created a collaborative community discussion to help developers build with citizen input guiding their decisions.

~ Greg Johnson