Iowa City, Coralville preparing for big projects, financial uncertainty in 2014

Focus on economic development, post-flood rebuilding puts cities in motion

Gregg Hennigan
Published: January 5 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:38 am in

IOWA CITY – Take a deep breath before listing the projects that will be ongoing or may get underway in Iowa City in 2014.

Mayor Matt Hayek gave it a go: There’s a redesigned streetscape downtown, a high-rise building nearing completion on the Pedestrian Mall, negotiations over an even taller building proposed for the east edge of downtown, an historical renovation of a downtown bank and a related new office building nearby, a proposed riverside multi-use building and the continued redevelopment of the Towncrest neighborhood on the east side.

“And I just scratched the surface,” he said.

Hayek didn’t even mention major projects from the University of Iowa that include a new Hancher Auditorium, children’s hospital, School of Music building and more.

The Iowa City area is at the start of a construction boom with about $2 billion worth of work underway or on tap.

“You know that sign that says ‘pardon our dust, we’re under construction’?” City Manager Tom Markus asked. “That’s going to be kind of the mantra around here for a while.”

A number of the UI and Iowa City projects result from record flooding in 2008. Also, the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession.

But city officials in recent years have put increasing emphasis on economic development.

“I think Iowa City is resurgent,” Hayek said. “We have a city manager’s office that recognizes the need to maintain a strong tax base and grow the core of the community, and all the other parts as well.”

High-rises, financial questions

The projects are not without controversy, however. The two downtown high-rises, both from developer Marc Moen, have drawn protests and a legal challenge.

The use of city financial assistance to boost private projects also has been denounced by residents and some Johnson County supervisors.

Hayek said increasing the tax base will help the city’s financial stability. City officials expect federal and state funding to decrease in the coming years.

And they say property tax reform enacted by state lawmakers this year could cost the city $50 million over the next decade, although the state says it will backfill losses in communities across Iowa.

In part to prepare for leaner times, the city has trimmed its work force the past couple years, primarily through attrition but also with layoffs. Markus is recommending the equivalent of 6.5 full-time positions be cut in the budget year that starts July 1.

“That gradual approach allows the organization to absorb the impact over time rather than waiting for a crisis,” Markus said.

The City Council will soon discuss whether to ask voters to approve a 1 percent local-option sales tax. Iowa City had one from 2009 to this past summer for flood-related projects, and Markus said a new one could go toward road work, property tax relief and more.

Coralville

In Coralville, the city expects to adopt a new community plan in the first quarter of 2014. That would update the current plan, which is from 1992, and guide development for the next 20 years in the growing community.

Infrastructure, housing, parks, transportation and more are addressed in the plan, City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said.

Construction is scheduled to start this spring on the expansion of the congested Coral Ridge Avenue from Holiday Road to Oakdale Boulevard. The two-lane road will become four lanes and include turn lanes, a pedestrian underpass north of Holiday Road and a trail.

“That’s a really big project for us,” Hayworth said.

Construction also will start on the first housing units in the $24 million redevelopment of the Old Town area south of Fifth Street. The area was damaged by flooding in 2008, and a berm has been constructed to keep water out.

In the city-run Iowa River Landing district, a retail building is to be finished in the spring. In late summer, work is expected to start on another building that would include retail on the first floor and housing above, Hayworth said.

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