City, developers prepare for arts campus shift

by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – A high-rise development, business relocations and a road improvement project are awaiting Board of Regents approval.

The Board of Regents is the governing body of the University of Iowa and does not have a say on private developments or city projects. But several groups are awaiting the regents approval, or lack thereof, on plans to relocate the school’s flooded music facilities.

UI officials made a presentation to the regents June 9 at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton about plans to replace the Voxman Music Building and Clapp Recital Hall on property just south of Burlington Street in downtown Iowa City, a block away from the main campus.

The purchase of privately and publicly owned land needs to be secured before the UI will seek formal approval from the regents, UI officials said last week. The project would require two bank branches to move to new locations.

If approved, Voxman would be on four and a half floors in Hieronymus Square, a mixed-use development at the southeast corner of Burlington and Clinton streets, similar to the Plaza Towers. It has been on hold since the economy tanked in 2008.

Clapp would be in a new facility on the southwest corner of the same intersection. The estimated cost of the two facilities is $125 million. A combination of flood insurance proceeds, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding, Academic Building Revenue Bond proceeds and University funds will pay for the base replacement project. Additional university and gift funding would support selected program improvements that are ineligible for FEMA replacement funding.

Hieronymus Square

The Hieronymus Square project was slated as a $40 million, 13-story, mixed-use development when presented to the city council in 2006. The city approved a $16.4 million tax-increment financing incentive from the city to include commercial space and energy efficient measures. When the economy turned sour and credit sources dried up, the developers asked for an extension.

Now, the project could receive a boost from the UI music school project.

“Obviously their involvement with it will make the whole project economically feasible,” said Kevin Digmann, spokesman for Hodge Construction, developers of Hieronymus Square. “In today’s world, we’ve had it on the drawing board for a long time and at the time it wouldn’t have been right with the economy and difficulty financing things,. We would have looked to do a project but it never would have been as large as what we had planned. This just enables the whole thing to move a lot quicker and to be bigger than it would have ever been without the university.”

If the regents approve the location, the development will have a larger footprint than originally planned.

“It would now include the corner where the Mod Pod site is (301 S. Dubuque St.), so it would be redeveloping that entire lot all the way to the north end of the parking ramp there,” he said.

Commercial space is planned for the ground floor. Above that, UI would occupy four and a half floors for classrooms, office space and a small recital hall.

“Above that we would go back to what our original concept was, which was office space above that for probably the next two floors and then we’d have four to five floors of residential apartments and condominiums,” he said.

Following approval, the next step is to hire an architect.

“If the UI approves it, the next steps are to select an architect over the next three to four months,” he said. “They’ll sketch out what’s there as far as space needs and try to incorporate it in with Clapp. This is all contingent on the banks to relocate. So there’s still a lot. So as it good as it sounds, it’s still not a done, done deal until all the parties are in agreement and signed off to do it.”

Downtown Iowa City

Construction of Voxman and Clapp in that location would hasten the Moen Group to move ahead to develop the northeast corner of Burlington and Clinton streets into a high-rise, mixed-use project. The project would include lots that house Starbucks and the Mill Restaurant.

Marc Moen, owner of the land and developer of the Plaza Towers, said the proposal for Voxman/Clapp is a positive one for downtown.

“If that happens then I think it’s going to spur a lot of development downtown, certainly at that corner. We’re anxious to see what would be on that site of ours,” he said. “And it’s great timing for us because we’ve been thinking for the last year or so exactly what we want to build there. But it’s just now, after Plaza Towers, that we’re ready to do another project.”

Mr. Moen is also awaiting the UI’s decision on the flooded UI Museum of Art. He would like to see it relocate to his proposed development.

“The museum is such a huge thing in general for downtown. I just don’t want to make any false moves in terms of committing to something else until I know where the museum is going. If we have a shot of doing that project with the university, I don’t want to do anything that would disrupt that,” he said. “Just the idea of having it somewhere downtown is a big deal and that’s first and foremost as far as I’m concerned, secondary is exactly where.”

Property taxes

The replacement of private businesses with public, tax-exempt buildings is a concern to some, who worry Iowa City will lose too much of its property tax revenue. It’s a legitimate concern, said Jeff Davidson, Iowa City’s planning and community development director.

“When the university made this announcement, we were looking at ourselves, we were a little stunned, and thought, ‘OK, are we happy about this or are we mad about this?’” he said.

After analyzing the data, they decided it would be beneficial to downtown.

“Really, what we had to do was put some pencil to paper and do some calculations, and it soon became apparent to us that in spite of the fact that this is replacing some private-sector area with public-sector area, we’re going to achieve as great of a property tax enhancement in this area as we thought we were going to get when we thought it (Hieronymus Square) was just going to be a private-sector project.”

The UI’s investment can offset the slow credit lending and make the project a reality.

“There’s over $100 million (the UI’s) going to put into the project, it’s going to enhance it to such a degree that even though they’re carving out some non-taxable space, overall we’re going to end up with an enormous enhancement to property taxes,” he said. “It’s apparent right now that things are still slow enough with the economy that it requires that infusion of cash from the University of Iowa to jumpstart the project and make it go.”

Burlington Street

The busy thoroughfare along the southern perimeter of the UI’s main campus will be upgraded as the projects develop. A median will be constructed to improve safety for pedestrians.

“Burlington Street is a five-lane-wide barrier full of traffic,” Mr. Davidson said. “It doesn’t move terribly quickly, which is a good thing in terms of pedestrian safety. We need to start working toward a strategy that as downtown grows, that we can deal with Burlington Street, that we can get people across there safely. In Chicago, as a pedestrian, you can get across Michigan Avenue. It’s a little daunting, but you can. And I think we can do the same thing with Burlington Street.”


Members of the Downtown Association of Iowa City (DTA) are also excited at the prospect of having UI recitals and other events locate downtown, said Nick Arnold, the association’s executive director.

“Having these buildings built at the intersection of Burlington and Clinton, combined with the ($70 million UI Recreation and) Wellness Center just down the street, will have a tremendous impact on the reshaping of the ‘SoBu’ (South of Burlington) neighborhood,” he said. “Furthermore, the Old Capitol Cultural District will become a more vital, sophisticated and entertaining urban environment.”

Mr. Arnold said DTA members don’t seem to be concerned about additional parking needs that the music facilities could generate, and Mr. Davidson said the city is prepared.

“Any new development on that block, the Court Street Transportation Center is supposed to provide parking for that,” he said. “It’s still probable that structure (Hieronymus Square) will have some subterranean parking as well.”

About 350 UI parking permit holders use the Court Street ramp now, with the understanding that those permits could be lost once development takes place on the block.

The Voxman/Clapp project would have a minimal impact on parking downtown, he said, because recitals would take place after normal business hours.

“The music school will have parking needs during the day but the performing arts venues’ need is primarily during our off-peak times,” Mr. Davidson said. “We’re sitting there with parking spaces within a block of Voxman/Clapp, over 2,000 spaces between Capitol Street, Dubuque Street and Court Street ramps. And their peak usage occurs during our off-peak time.”

River Crossing District

The projects will all have a ripple effect on improvements to the River Crossings District, which is bordered by Burlington Street to the north, the Iowa River to the west, Gilbert Street to the east and Highway 6 to the south.

“We’re trying to grow that River Crossings area not only from a residential perspective but from a commercial perspective,” Mr. Davidson said. “We’re going to have two banks, if this project comes to pass, that will need new facilities. Perhaps they can go into the Hieronymus Square building, perhaps they would be interested in a new building somewhere in the Crossings and we would love to work with them on that if that gets to be a direction they want to take.”

Johnson County Supervisors are also looking for ways to build a new justice center in the area. Meanwhile, the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce and other groups are hoping Amtrak will bring a Chicago-Iowa City-Des Moines passenger rail route to town, which would stop in the Crossing district.

“There are by all means a lot of things happening and the more things happening, the more the ripple effect is greater and greater and greater and then it all of the sudden becomes feasible for other things,” he said.

The Voxman/Clapp plans will also need to be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) before moving forward; FEMA plans to pay 90 percent of the eligible replacement costs for the buildings because recovery costs equal more than half of the buildings’ pre-flood values.