Prescription for change

 by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – A plan will now be drafted for proposed changes to the southeast side of Iowa City.

City staff has met with residents and business owners from the southeast side for more than a year now, gathering input and suggestions on how to improve the district. Iowa City hosted its final public planning meeting at South East Junior High School, 2501 Bradford Dr., on Feb. 23.

About 50 people attended the meeting, where they were asked to prioritize various proposed district improvements. Public input was organized into eight categories: industrial development, parks and open space, housing and quality of life, streets and transportation, Towncrest redevelopment, eastside growth, institutional uses and Sycamore Mall/First Avenue.

Within each category, dozens of suggestions were listed, based on previous public input meetings that have taken place for more than a year. Attendees affixed stickers next to the suggestions that were most important to them. Some of the highest-ranking improvements included a railroad overpass along First Avenue just south of the junior high school, decreased crime, safer streets, more diverse housing options, better trail connections and more landscape buffers between residential and industrial areas.

Now that ideas have been prioritized, city staff can draft a redevelopment plan for the district, said Karen Howard, an Iowa City associate city planner. That draft will be submitted to the planning and zoning commission, which will review it and host at least one public meeting on the plan before submitting it to the city council. Councilors will review and host an additional public meeting on the plan and then decide whether to approve it.

Once approved, the proposals will become part of the city’s comprehensive plan and the city will begin to implement some of the suggestions.

One such project is the railroad crossing across First Avenue, which recently received $2.4 million in federal Surface Transportation Program funds. The project is an important one to residents and business owners, because stalled trains bottleneck vehicle traffic along First Avenue for extended periods of time, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours. The  cost for the project is about $6.2 million and the Johnson County Council of Governments (JCCOG) has applied for additional federal funds to offset the cost, said John Yapp, JCCOG’s executive director.

“The project is currently under design and construction can start in 2011 or 2012, depending on how quickly the plan and permit approval process goes with Iowa DOT (Department of Transportation),” he stated in an e-mail.

Another top priority is the redevelopment of Towncrest, a downtrodden commercial area punctuated by the intersection of Muscatine and First avenues. The area was once known for its medical offices and facilities but has since become known for its neglected lots.

The city hopes to create an urban renewal plan for the area and possibly designate it as a tax increment financing (TIF) district to encourage investment in the neighborhood. After talks with neighborhood business owners, a four-phase plan was developed to rehabilitate the Towncrest medical area, bordered by Muscatine Avenue, First Avenue and the future extension of Baker Street.

Proposals for the area include improved sidewalks, wider streets, better parking and new mixed-use buildings.