Church decisions will determine future of One University Place

By Gigi Wood

A city council’s decision last week left the town divided.

The resulting development has the potential to change the city’s future, but that change is a long way off and is contingent upon plans for a church’s congregation.

Four University Heights councilors voted in favor, with one abstaining, of a zoning amendment that paves the way for high-end condos to be built where St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church site, 1300 Melrose Ave., now stands.

The amendment passed its first of three readings Sept. 14. The second and third readings will take place in October and November; the city council meets monthly.

The zoning amendment is the first step required to allow construction of One University Place, a proposed mixed-use project being developed by Jeff Maxwell of Maxwell Construction. The project initially included 95 units, but that was scaled down to a maximum of 80 last week.

The project has the 1,000-resident community split, with nearly 60 people attending last week’s city council meeting to protest it, at times booing and hissing at councilors. Two councilors openly squabbled during the formal meeting about their differences on the project. Other councilors have said they have received many e-mails and phone calls in support of the development, but many are worried public support of the project will lead to retribution from those against it.

The new project could increase the town’s population by 20 percent. After the meeting, one councilor said he had no problem with the potential increase; the town’s population has decreased 16 percent since 1970.

The in-fighting, protests and drama attached to this project may be for naught. The church itself still needs to decide what to do with its Melrose Avenue property.

“There’s no final decision from the congregation at this point,” said Allan Mebus, a member of an advisory board and spokesman for St. Andrew’s.

The church bought a 40-acre site on Camp Cardinal Road with intentions to build a new church to accommodate a growing congregation.

“This was an opportunity that presented itself; it was a good business decision,” he said. “The congregation decided, ‘Let’s purchase the land. We’ve talked about this.’ If we go that direction, we have the land. If we don’t go that direction, then we’ve got a valuable piece of property.”

Since the church’s plans were announced, some in the congregation have opposed the move and some have said those plans are now being debated.

“There are a lot of things that have to fall into place before those discussions can continue for the congregation (on moving). Until all those pieces have fallen into place anything anybody is saying is best guessing,” Mr. Mebus said. “We’re as a transparent as a window; nobody’s hiding anything, I don’t think. It’s just a matter of let’s see what tomorrow brings and what decisions are made and then the next day we’ll build on that.”

At the meeting last week, one councilor said he was disappointed the church was not involved in the discussion with the community about its property.

“If somebody wanted to buy your home property, would you get involved in what’s going to be done after you’re gone?” Mr. Mebus said. “As a group, we’ve tried to be a good neighbor the entire time we’ve been there. And we gave this careful consideration. And in simple response to the city council: thank you for the opportunity, but we hope with careful consideration, we hope you will do what’s best for your town.”

The church’s plans will need to be approved by its governing body, the Presbytery of East Iowa.

“I’ve read a few things that (say) only a few people want to do this. That’s quite contrary to the truth,” he said. “It is quite involved to sell a church, to buy land. It’s not just up to a small group of people. ”

At the same time, he said the church is also waiting for the council’s decisions on zoning.

“We’re in a holding pattern until the University Heights council makes final decisions and Mr. Maxwell makes final decisions.” CBJ