Larger issues hidden in Chauncey’s shadow

When a city or region grows, change is inevitable ­— and often painful.

Iowa City’s growing pains have most recently been displayed as part of discussions on development of the northeast corner of College and Gilbert streets.

On Tuesday night, I listened as a final set of residents sounded off on a proposal to rezone the property — the latest speed bump on the path to construction of the Chauncey, a 15-story, mixed-use high-rise. Nothing new emerged.

Those opposed to the Chauncey development remain concerned about traffic, parking, use of taxpayer funds, affordable housing and, of course, the shadows cast by another lofty building.

Artist rendering of the ChaunceyProponents wrapped their comments around praise for past projects by developer Marc Moen and the need for a “vibrant downtown.”

It was another opportunity for residents to speak; however, it served no practical purpose. It was clear that votes to approve were in the bag before the gavel cracked.

Don’t get me wrong; plenty of time remains for ongoing discussions about specific project details. But my hope is that the larger issues facing Iowa City’s downtown won’t become the proverbial forest, hidden in the shadows of the Chauncey trees.

Mayor Matt Hayek came close to launching such a discussion as he explained his support for rezoning.

According to Hayek, most objections were the result of misinformation or “political gamesmanship.” But he made an exception for the concerns expressed by members of Trinity Episcopal Church.

“I do not want this level of antagonism between the city and a treasured partner here in the community,” Hayek said before dismissing the church’s concerns of downtown density, shade and taxpayer contributions.

“I think [Trinity] is a beautiful facility and it plays an incredibly important role in our community. I think churches should be accessible to the public. I think they should be centrally located, if possible. Trinity is those things and I’m grateful to them.”

The original Trinity Episcopal Church sanctuary was built 1871 on the corner of Gilbert Street and College Street.
The original Trinity Episcopal Church sanctuary was built 1871 on the corner of Gilbert Street and College Street.

Hayek also noted that two other downtown faith communities are relocating elsewhere.

“Those groups are pursuing a car-based, suburban environment. That disappoints me,” he said. “I know that churches can thrive in many environments, including urban environments.”

What Hayek didn’t mention is the role local officials play in creating affordable and welcoming space for all of their inhabitants, including churches and other non-profits.

Individual groups are, of course, ultimately responsible for their own destiny. Members and leaders make final location decisions, but they don’t do so within a bubble.

City policies, vision and priorities are key factors in determining what groups locate downtown and whether or not they thrive.

There is no one thing that defines a neighborhood — especially a downtown neighborhood — as vibrant, viable or sustainable.

If city leaders have concerns or aren’t pleased with the end result of their existing policies and priorities, it’s time for a more holistic approach that respects and values all aspects of downtown.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 6, 2015.