Officials: Iowa City schools facilities work greater than most understand

"Everyone’s anxious for their piece” of 10-year, $258 million facilities plan

Gregg Hennigan
Published: January 18 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:18 am in

IOWA CITY – For many parents in the Iowa City Community School District, school building projects that officials spent most of last year discussing cannot come fast enough.

In November, school board member Marla Swesey summed up what she was hearing from the public on the 10-year, $258 million facilities plan this way: “Everyone’s anxious for their piece.”

But the amount of work needed just to get some of the sites ready, and the coordination required between school district and city officials, is extraordinary. That's particularly true for the four new schools in the plan, which are in undeveloped parts of three communities.

“A lot of people will be moving really fast on this,” said Dean Wheatley,  North Liberty city planner.

His town has perhaps the biggest job of all. It must get sanitary sewer and water service to a 76-acre site east of city limits at the intersection of Dubuque Street and North Liberty Road, where a high school is to open in 2017.

Road upgrades also will be necessary to handle the increased traffic in what is now a rural part of Johnson County that the city plans to annex.

Various public infrastructure projects also will be needed to support a new elementary school just inside Coralville’s boundary and two new elementary schools east and southeast of Iowa City on recently annexed properties.

The infrastructure work is separate, albeit related, to the actual construction of the school buildings – and city and school officials believe the general public does not fully realize the scope of these projects.

School district Superintendent Stephen Murley pointed to the high school site as an example.

“There is so much work that needs to be done out there,” he said, citing natural gas and electricity in addition to sanitary sewer, water and roads. “And then, once that’s done, you’ve got to take a farm field and turn it into a school.”

Wheatley put it more frankly: “It’s just amazing to me how many people do not understand how development works.”

North Liberty and Coralville officials said extending sanitary sewer lines will be the biggest tasks.

The sewer line to the new high school is expected to be particularly complicated. It may have to go 60 feet below ground in one area, which North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar said was “amazingly deep.”

Wheatley said details are still being worked out, but much of the line is expected to be at more normal depths of up to 25 feet. A 2011 study showed a new sanitary sewer to the area would be 1.4 miles long, but he stressed that all numbers are preliminary at this point.

Cost estimates are not yet available. Cities typically charge developers connection fees to cover the expense.

The North Liberty and Coralville work involves larger annexation areas of several hundred acres that mostly will be developed into housing subdivisions, with thousands of new homes possible in the next couple of decades. Iowa City also expects homes to spring up around its new elementary schools.

In Coralville, where an elementary school is to open on North Liberty Road in 2019, the water line will have to be extended about 4,700 lineal feet and will be about 5 feet underground, City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said. The sanitary sewer will run about 6,500 lineal feet at an average depth of 10 feet, he said.

As for roads, Wheatley said North Liberty Road will need improvements, and the city typically pays 50 percent of the cost for arterial streets and the developers on each side of the street pay 25 percent each. Developers pay for new side streets.

At a December 2013 meeting between North Liberty and Johnson County officials, the county supervisors made clear they were not interested in contributing toward road costs in an area that will be annexed into the city.

In Iowa City, water and sewer services already are near the sites where the two new elementary schools will go. A school on Sycamore Street is scheduled to open in 2015 and another on American Legion Road is to be ready in 2017.

Sycamore Street will need extensive upgrades for the south school including paving and the addition of water mains, storm sewers and sidewalks, noted Jeff Davidson, Iowa City’s planning and community development director.

That will cost an estimated $5.5 million, including an east-west stretch over to Gilbert Street, for a two-phase project the city planned to do eventually in an area targeted for development.

“It’s just a matter of all of a sudden right now, it will need to be done” because of the school, Davidson said.

School and city officials worked together to identify land for new schools.

Iowa City Manager Tom Markus said construction of the new schools actually will be easier than the rehabilitation work at existing schools in established neighborhoods where there is little room for equipment and supplies

“It’s just a lot more, I think, intense planning to deal with the existing circumstances,” he said.

Murley, the schools superintendent, pointed to Lincoln Elementary in Iowa City, which is tucked into a residential neighborhood. It is to undergo renovations and get an addition in a neighborhood not favorable to construction work of that scale, he said.

“I think we’re going to have some challenges in our embedded campuses,” Murley said.

Still, all the city officials said these are projects their residents want. And each independently mentioned how important coordination will be.

Murley offered another example. Homes are expected to be built around the new south elementary school in Iowa City, but the area is not yet mapped out into lots.

The district will need to know how high to grade the land for the school. If it is too high, the surrounding properties could have drainage issues, he said.

If the school is too low, it could have water problems.

“It’s a fair amount of work, and it’s going to take coordination between the schools and the cities in all regards to make sure they meet their timetables,” Markus said.

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