In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey see’s what his town might have been like had he not influenced the development of the community. Developers largely determine the attractiveness of a city or lack of attractiveness. The character of a city can hinge on whether it’s a George Bailey or Mr. Potter who have greatest influence in a community. Quality development and planning can create vibrant urban areas of mixed business, commercial, and residential space. Poor development can have disastrous results. Even neutral results aren’t desirable when you consider what could have been. As average citizens, we can’t pick who develops in our cities. It’s a roll of the dice. You either have quality developers, or you don’t. Fortunately, in Iowa City, we have a development company that actually cares about the community and invests the extra time and money into building attractive sustainable buildings. They reach beyond the bottom line to have a positive impact in the city. I’m talking about the Moen Group. I was impressed by their work early on, and have been following and learning best practices from their development projects. I’ve been living in Iowa City for most of the past 30 years, and first began visiting in the late 1960s. Since 1983, I’ve been living and/or working in downtown Iowa City. So, I’ve seen the downtown area grow and change. Many of the historic landmarks remain, and among the new buildings that have come up, some of those are destined to be new historic landmarks. The Moen Group is largely responsible for creating these new historic landmarks — beautiful modern buildings that reflect their natural surroundings. I began studying urban and regional planning back in the 1980s as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. My interest in urban studies took me to Central and South America. More recently, in August of 2003, I combined much of what I’d learned over the years and commissioned Jay Shafer (of to build a tiny off-the-grid house. I lived in the 10’x7′ home for 6 years and wrote a book about the experience (Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in 140 Square Feet). Along the way, I helped create the Small House Society, and a movement was born. I explain the above to give you the context from which I’m writing. With my long time interest in urban and regional planning, I tend to see the world through architectural lens. Much of my photography is of buildings. Some of my photography is from high altitudes. I use these photos in presentations to talk about how community and urban planning can shape our lives. The website gets visitors from all over the world. So, I don’t know where you may be from, but I’d encourage you to become knowledgeable about who develops properties and buildings in your city. Find out which of those developers are forward thinking and care about the community. Support those developers and let them know you appreciate the positive ways their investments impact your community. If possible, support TIFinitiatives that help compensate developers, businesses, and investors for the portion of their projects that result in positive outcomes to the community for which they are not financially reimbursed through normal business channels. Here are three examples where a TIF model would be helpful.

  • Community Value. Let’s say a developer builds a park instead of a casino. That developer has delivered something of value to the community for which there is not a business model by which they can be reimbursed. That business owner should be compensated somehow, and a TIF is a good way to do that. Obviously this is an extreme example, but many developers build-in added community value to their projects, and this deserves some compensation.
  • Urban Revitalization. Sometimes a developer cares enough to explore how their development choices can help revitalize a community. It’s easy to quickly throw together an apartment building and walk away from it. However, much time, research, exploration, money, and follow-up goes into developing properties that will effectively provide residential, commercial, and business spaces. It’s not necessarily more profitable, it is however better for the community. A quality developer and property owner will establish long-term partnerships with successful businesses who can create economic stability (for everyone) in the community. It take time and market research to find the right businesses for spaces. Quality planning and development costs more, yet there is no economic model whereby developers can be reimbursed for the extra investment it requires.
  • Attractive Urban Spaces. Another consideration is the aesthetic attractiveness of a building. The architectural design, materials, and labor that go into building another brick building are minimal. However, let’s say a developer wants to create a building that is unique, attractive, and modern. Modern and unique buildings require innovation, creativity, and additional planning. We all want attractive buildings. Yet, there is no economic incentive for developers to build attractive buildings, and there is no economic model whereby they can be reimbursed for the extra cost.

As a society, we subsidize hybrid cars because they are presently too costly to compete with traditional vehicles and we’d all like to see more of them on the road. We need to begin thinking the same way about development and support developers who create attractive mixed use buildings.

If you are a developer, I would encourage you to follow the approaches to development used by the Moen Group.

For more information, you can read my article about the latest Moen Group project.

Greg Johnson