Friday, May 29, 2009


As I mentioned in a comment to last week's post, Disappointed But Not Surprised, I wrote a guest opinion for the Iowa City Press Citizen.

Introducing myself to the developer after the meeting, and talking about my blog, is what crystalized my approach to what I wanted to say.

I made copies of my letter and the real estate brochure and hand delivered them to our five city council members (took about 25 minutes including visiting with three of them, there are some positives to a small town) on Tuesday evening. Then I then emailed it to the paper Tuesday night.

Wednesday morning I found three emails back from the paper. The first asked for a copy of the brochure that they could run with the piece, the second asked could I send a picture of myself and a one sentence biography, and the third said they would run it on Friday and would not have room for any image of the brochure. I had a hard time finding a decent picture of myself in a hurry, and to be honest, it wasn't the time element that made it difficult.

So here what I said:

I found a map the other day that the original owner of our house drew showing all the trees and plantings in her yard. Bess Fox built our house in 1928 in University Heights’ second addition. The map was drawn in 1956. On the map she listed 19 trees: 4 apple, 3 cherry, 3 peach, 3 plum, 2 pear, 1 pine, 1 elm, 1 redbud, and 1 magnolia. Today NONE of those trees are in our yard. What also fascinates me is that the 3 walnuts, each over 30 feet high that completely dominate our yard are not listed. There is also a very large oak tree between us and our neighbors, that visitors frequently comment must be over 150 years old, I smile, and being the polite type, don’t disagree. However I have a 1929 picture of our house and the neighbor’s that show no trees at all, not surprising since the land was a pasture before it was developed. Driving our shady woodland neighborhood today it’s only logical to assume it has always been this way.

I mention this because my town’s city council will face an extremely difficult decision on June 9th when they hear an application for the rezoning of the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church parcel. The developer there has proposed a commercial center at the front of the site and a residential building toward the rear. In the three voluntary meetings he held prior to submission of his application, the developer presented ideas and asked for community feedback. When the official proposal was submitted to the U-H Planning and Zoning Commission the final project reflected input from the community that said it was too tall and too dense. The residential building was lowered from 9 stories in the middle with 7 story wings to 6 stories in the middle with a 3 story wing to the west and a 4 story wing to the east. The commercial building was moved back further from the street, also as a result of community input.

Not surprisingly even though these changes were made, there are many people still opposed to the project. Two frequent criticisms I heard, at both the voluntary meetings held by the developer and the two sessions of the formal Planning & Zoning Commission hearing, were that “University Heights is a town of single family residences” and “University Heights was deliberately created without any commercial district.” I think it would be fair to summarize those arguments as “The way it pretty much is now is the way it has always been.” I beg to differ.

Besides being a pretty fair cartographer, Bess was a documentarian and a saver. A prized artifact I have is an original advertising brochure for the sale of lots in University Heights Second Addition. This document dates to 1927. It touts, in red letters no less, University Heights as “The Coral Gables Sub-Division of Iowa City.” Koser Brothers, the developers of University Heights, predicted “A lot in University Heights is a safe investment because the $6,000,000 building program of the UNIVERSITY on the West Side will make a big demand for West Side property and will cause values to increase very rapidly.” Their next statement was, “In a few years we predict the West Side Campus of the University will be larger than the East Side, and this will develop a residence section on the West Side of the river as large as we now have on the East Side---a business district with hotels, stores, etc. Iowa City will grow and develop as the University develops… A future vision of Iowa City must be a vision of a New City on the West Side.” To be absolutely clear of their intention, at another portion of the brochure is the statement, “University Heights has ample building restriction sufficient to protect all parties. A business district has been planned.”

Maybe it’s unfair to say that University Heights was planned with a business district, since the advertising brochure predates municipal incorporation by at least 7 years. Perhaps the thinking changed during that time? In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article written shortly after the first municipal election, following incorporation in 1935, it notes as highly unusual that there are currently no businesses in town. But it should be mentioned that the first mayor of University Heights was Lee Koser, the real estate developer half of Koser Brothers, and presumed author of the quotes above.

With the stock market crash and subsequent depression, it seemed as though no businesses would ever locate within city limits, but the post World War II years brought commercial construction on the very east edge of town, and Iowa’s fairly restrictive alcohol sales laws brought commercial construction to the very west edge. For more about that I highly recommend David Belgum’s book “Memoirs of Iowa’s Only Socialist Mayor.”

So even though things seem to have always been the same, perhaps they weren’t. I have to think Bess found it highly amusing to live on Golfview Ave. My University-Heights real estate brochure extols the proximity of town to the “golf links” making it a country club like setting. Golfview Ave. was to be the most prestigious street in town. There was only one problem, the same year that Bess built her house, the University of Iowa, with no prior warning, announced that it was relocating the football field to the West Campus area occupied by Finkbine Golf Course, and moving the golfing even further west. And rest, as they say, is history.

I would urge University Heights City Council to approve the zoning change for the One University Place development.

To see my bio and picture (and read the snarky comments that will soon be posted, I'm sure) You'll need to go to the P-C's online article:

Approve One University Place

Edit at 10:00 AM: Due to requests, here is the complete photo that was edited down for my head shot:

Rowan took it a couple months ago. I'm sitting at the breakfast nook, maybe doing the crossword or suduko?


StuccoHouse said...

Wow, very well written.This reminds me so much of the discussion that took place in my neighborhood a few years back and resulted in our much beloved mini-commercial/apartment/out door meeting area building.

Mike said...

Thanks, Stucco.

I really sort of stew about what to write and then sit down and dump it all at once. I am pleased there haven't been negative responses yet. I'm also pleasantly surprised by emails I've received.


Black Dog's Photographer said...

Isn't it interesting that history isn't always as we wish? Very well thought out column you wrote. Very neat that you have that old brochure to help remind people what the original plans were.

Jenni said...

Well Done! You need to add you letter(pic too) to Bess's files so they can all be together in Foxcroft's history.

Mike said...

Thanks Jenni and Black Dog. I'm not sure reminding people of original intent will be enough to convince them. I'm not sure if I mentioned anywhere that due to the P&Z voting it down a super majority of 4/5 will be required to pass. Even if P&Z approved it would require a super majority due to petition of neighbors. One councilor will likely cite conflict of interest as he is a church member (and son-in-law of a leader of the oppostion) An abstention counts as a "no" vote so 4 of 4 will be required.