Riverfront Crossings sees development rush

Development activity, interest picking up at south end of IC’s Riverfront Crossings district, including at 1301@The Crossings, shown above. PHOTO KATHARINE CARLON


By Katharine Carlon
[email protected]

When the flood of 2008 took out Iowa City’s North Wastewater Treatment Facility, officials didn’t settle for flood mitigation or even a new 17-acre park on the facility’s former site. Instead they pushed harder, completely re-imagining a massive swath of land extending from Iowa Avenue in the north to Highway 6 in the south.

The result, the Downtown and Riverfront Crossings District Master Plan, has already borne fruit with millions in new investments in housing, hotel projects, office space, commercial businesses, parking facilities and the University of Iowa’s new Voxman School of Music building.

Now, with the city’s Riverfront Cross­ings Park set to open next year, the south­ernmost and least updated pocket of the district is finally abuzz with activity, from a new brewery-restaurant to the construc­tion of at least five mixed-use apartment and commercial buildings.

Developers say they are eager to join with the city in constructing both a more welcoming gateway to the downtown area and a thriving neighborhood with a char­acter all its own.

“The park is the real catalyst,” Karen Howard, associate planner in the city’s ur­ban planning office, said of the ongoing redevelopment along the south Gilbert Street corridor. “Turning a city sewer into the front yard of a new neighborhood is a pretty big and exciting change. We’ve rethought our relationship with the river and, with the park, we’re treating it as an asset and a driver for new development.”

Nate Kaeding, a co-owner of Big Grove Brewery, which opened its second 26,000-square-foot location at 1225 S. Gilbert St. last spring, said he and his part­ners probably would have not considered the site were it not for the park.

“That was the draw,” Mr. Kaeding said, adding that locating the business next to “what is probably the City Park of our generation” and smack in the middle of a bustling new residential area was an op­portunity that couldn’t be passed up.

“It’s something you just can’t replicate someplace else,” he said. “The city has done a really great job bringing their vi­sion to life. That’s a really big deal from a development perspective.”

Riverfront Crossings Park is “quickly becoming Iowa City’s showcase on the Iowa River,” said Parks and Recreation Director Juli Seydell Johnson. Bounded to the west by the river and to the east by new development on Gilbert Street, the park will feature connections to the Iowa River Trail, a five-acre wetland area, striking vistas of the Iowa River and a “nature play area” that mixes traditional playground pieces like swings and slides with exploration areas created from land forms, landscaping and creek features. Fu­ture phases of the park will add shelters, restrooms, boat access to the river and a large community lawn.

Randy Miller, president and managing member of 1201 Gilbert LLC and 1301 Gilbert LLC, said that, like Big Grove, park construction was the trigger for his group’s plans to construct at least five new mixed-use buildings on either side of the brewery over the next six years.

The first building at 1301 Gilbert, also known as 1301@The Crossings, is already well underway and slated to open in June. The three-story structure, located on the site of the former Pleasant Valley Nursery, will include about 15,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor with 27 studio apartments on the upper floors.

The next phase of the project, at 1201 S. Gilbert, will break ground in October 2018 and eventually house four new buildings with about 260 apartments ranging from studios to two-bedrooms, plus additional ground floor commercial space. All told, Mr. Miller and his partners aim to bring more than 300 units of affordable “workforce housing” and about 28,000 square feet of new commercial space to market, constructing approximately one new building a year.

1201 S. Gilbert is the current site of Alexander Lumber, which will move to a new location in 2018. Company President Russell Kathrein did not respond to the CBJ by press time, although recent published reports suggest the Aurora, Illinois- based company could move its operations to the 420th Street Industrial Park on the city’s southeast side.

An aerial view of the developing Riverfront Crossings park in Iowa City. CREDIT CITY OF IOWA CITY

“Visually, you can see a lot happening in this area already, especially with the new park, Big Grove and our building framed and in the rough-in stage,” Mr. Miller said of the spate of activity in the area, which has even spilled across the street with the opening of Natural Grocers and the return of Carlos O’Kelly’s in a newly-constructed venue along Highway 6. “It’s amazing the transformation that has been made, and we’re going to see that kind of change again in six months.”

Mr. Miller said he and the city are coordinating on a sidewalk system between the new neighborhood and the park, including pedestrian access across the newly restored Ralston Creek in several spots. Earlier this year, Mr. Miller’s projects qualified for $312,000 in city aid, allowing him to apply for workforce housing tax credits of up to 10 percent through the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board.

“Our portion of the project is going to be a very pedestrian and bicycle friendly place for workforce housing – young professionals as well as older people – with amenities catering to the people living there,” he said. “It’s a project I believed in … and it’s everything I’d hoped for.”

Mr. Miller said those amenities will include retail, office services and health and beauty salons in the commercial bays. That space is currently leasing for between $22-$28 a square foot, according to promotional material.

“We want a mix our residential tenants will use and appreciate having onsite,” he said, adding that commercial space at the 1301 building is nearly full and he is already negotiating with commercial tenants about the 1201 site.

“They say, ‘if you build it, they will come,’ but it’s certainly good to know they’ll be there. I sleep easier.”

Ms. Howard said high interest in the area was not surprising, considering the number of phone calls the city is fielding “from property owners in the area, from people seeing what’s happening and asking about redevelopment.”

Iowa City Economic Development Coordinator Wendy Ford concurred. While the park provided the redevelopment spark, she said, all the new activity is “creating a critical mass spurring developers to continue to look, invest and help us fill out our vision for the Riverfront Crossings area.”

“We have the ability to be a catalyst for change in this up-and-coming part of town,” agreed Mr. Kaeding, who believes development on the south end of the district will help tie it into the downtown area alongside other new projects like the $102 million RISE at Riverfront Crossings project at Linn and Court streets, the new MidWestOne Place@Riverside Crossings building and the nearby Sabin Townhomes at Prentiss and Clinton streets.

New businesses and residences will add vitality, Ms. Ford said, while the park anchoring Riverfront Crossings’ south end will ensure the river can rise to floodway without damaging nearby structures, draw attention to the area and serve notice that “we really care about this end of town and want people to live there, visit there and do business there.”

“I’m a lifer in Iowa City and for all that time, that area was highly underutilized,” she added. “Now, with just a bit of vision, it’s being reimagined to add to the core of Iowa City.”