What I refer to as the Monson project is a proposed development in the central business district on a vacant lot by Kevin Monson, a local architect seeking approval for a 14-story project at 7 S. Linn across from the Clock Tower parking ramp. This is widely viewed as a test case as to how we view new development in the central business district and the role of density, parking, and tax revenues. There is a lot to learn from the Monson Case.
The drama played out at the Board of Adjustment. That board decides on minor variants for individual properties that may have difficulty meeting specific zoning requirements. There are five members, appointed by the City Council, each serving a five-year term.
The board requires that no more than two of the five members be in the business of buying and selling real estate. So for the other three positions, all are welcome. By the way, I don’t think there are two who actually spend time buying or selling real estate.
The Board of Adjustment is charged to promote the general welfare, protect property value and encourage the most appropriate use of the land. The board may grant relief from the zoning requirements if that decision serves the public interest. It does not require an advanced degree or any special expertise, but common sense and a willingness to listen helps.
So normally, the focus is pretty narrow: One property at a time and no earth shattering policy decisions. They had the choice to approve a seven-story proposal or a 14-story proposal. They went with seven, with three voting in favor and two against.
The issue for the board, apparently, was parking. In the central business district, residential uses are required to provide parking. In the case of the seven-story proposal, 18 spaces would be required. In the 14-story proposal, it would be 38.
For the sake of context, let’s recall that the Iowa Legislature recently rolled back property taxes on commercial real estate by 10 percent. The legislature also granted apartments the same tax status as condominiums, which lopped another 45 percent off the assessed values.
State tax cuts are great, right? Well, not if you’re the city government. According to the Iowa City Finance Department, the city can expect to see $10 million less in tax revenues once those changes are fully realized. When the legislation was initially passed, the state agreed to supplement — or “backfill” — the cities whose tax revenues were hit the worst. Iowa City was hit worse than any city in the state.
But how likely is that backfill promise when the city that needs it most is the most Democratic city in the state, and the legislature and the governor’s mansion are both in the hands of Republicans? Hint: they don’t really like us and they have a tendency to be vindictive.
Back to the Monson Case:
The difference in property tax revenues for the seven-story vs. the 14-story Monson project is $95,899 per year. Assuming that the tax revenues from the property would go up 2 percent per year, that means that the city, by approving the smaller building, will forgo more than $8.1 million in tax revenue from the property over the next 50 years.
All for 18 parking spaces.
We have 1,390 parking spaces in our downtown ramps and an additional 1,142 metered spaces. Couldn’t we figure out a way to wedge in 36 spaces somewhere? By the way, these are 36 spaces that the potential occupants may or may not actually need.
The University of Iowa is building 1,050 new beds for students just north of the Memorial Union. They are adding ZERO new parking spaces. They figure if someone wants to have a car, it should be an expensive proposition and it should spend most of its time in a remote lot. Why is that so difficult for the Iowa City to do?
I don’t want to lay this on the Board of Adjustment, because I’m not willing to spend the hours they do to make these decisions. But a little financial awareness and concern for the big picture wouldn’t hurt.
In the meantime, I urge our City Council to change the parking requirements for residential uses in the central business district. We have the infrastructure to support intensive development. We are apparently opposed to sprawl. We need the taxes to “backfill” our own commitments to various city projects, such as the Senior Center, the Iowa City Public Library, the Summer of the Arts, and the Englert Theater to name a few. After all, based on Mayor Throgmorton’s speech to the joint service clubs, the council supports development.
I guess we’ll see.