City, officials, developer debate church site plans

By Gigi Wood

More than a year into the process, it is unclear what the future plans will be for the St. Andrew’s church site in University Heights.

Developers and city officials discussed the project at the city’s work session Aug. 24. Future plans for the site are important to the city as it attempts to shelter its small-town feel while Iowa City grows rapidly around the land-locked, 1,000-resident neighborhood.

The site itself is developmentally desirable, located on the corner of Sunset Street and Melrose Avenue at the western edge of the town’s tailgate region, just blocks from Kinnick Stadium and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The council will meet Sept. 14 to discuss and decide whether to approve or reject rezoning of the church site to allow for a mixed-use development.

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 1300 Melrose Ave., has been the focal point of community discussions since early 2009, when Jeff Maxwell of Maxwell Construction presented plans to construct a 93-unit high-end condominium project on the church site.

St. Andrew’s bought a 40-acre site on Camp Cardinal Road with intentions to build a new church to accommodate a growing congregation. Since the church’s plans were announced, some in the congregation have opposed the move and some officials have said those plans are now being debated.

According to one city council meeting’s minutes, Mr. Maxwell offered $4.3 million to the church for the property. It is assessed for $380,000.

Mr. Maxwell’s original development would have consisted of two buildings and included commercial space on the first floor of the building closest to Melrose Avenue. Critics of the project said it was too high density, did not fit in with the city’s comprehensive plan, would create too much traffic and destroy the community’s unique character. The project required a zoning code amendment and was rejected by the city council last year.

He has resubmitted a project for the site, with some changes. In the new plan, the south building is set back an additional 10 feet from Melrose Avenue and its height reduced from 54 feet to 38 feet. The north building is planned to be three stories high on the west, four stories on the east and six stories in the center, as was planned last year.

The new plan does not call for a specific number of condo units. The proposal is asking for a minimum of 95 units, with the anticipation that the number of condos be reduced as owners may buy multiple units and combine them into single, larger homes.

The council has reworked the city’s comprehensive plan since the first development application was submitted. The plan now gives the council more authority to approve and reject zoning change requests based on density, mass and scale, land use, building materials, environmental issues and several other factors.

Critics of new development on the site say the city does not need to increase its property tax base and that residents are willing to pay more in taxes to meet city expenses. Others say they are concerned raising taxes will not be enough to pay for repairing and upgrading the city’s aging infrastructure, such as water and sewer pipes and services, like transit.

Planning and Zoning Chair Pat Bauer this summer also submitted his own plan for the site. It mirrors Mr. Maxwell’s, but at a lower density and eliminates the commercial section of the project.

“I believe this brings a sensible middle ground, eliminating what the community was most at odds with,” Mr. Bauer said.

Mr. Bauer said he hopes Mr. Maxwell adopts the modified plan, adding that he believes it was the commercial area that divided the community on whether to approve the project.

Some residents last year voiced concerns that a gas station or late night bar would move into the development.

At last week’s meeting, Mr. Maxwell said such businesses would not be pursued. He said the businesses in the development would need to appeal to the tenants of the condos and to nearby residents.

He said he is working to negotiate an extension for coming to an agreement with the church, which has its own contingencies for the site.

“Our contingencies are based on rezoning, and if we don’t have rezoning, we can’t meet our contingencies,” said Kevin Monson, architect for Mr. Maxwell’s plan. “It’s a bit of a Catch-22.”

Although the city might want the plan scaled back, the project is not financially feasible with fewer units at the price the church wants for the land, Mr. Monson said.

“We have more concern than anyone about who lives here because we have to market these units and we assure the buyers that they are going to have a fantastic neighborhood,” he said.

Mr. Maxwell said he feels that if he does not meet those requirements, the church will simply wait for the next development offer to come along.

Some reductions in parking spaces and building heights were discussed at the meeting. Mr. Monson said some tweaks would be made and submitted to council before its next meeting.

City Attorney Steve Ballard asked for direction from the council on zoning language number of parking spots, height of buildings and the timing of developments to include in a potential amendment. CBJ