By Angela Holmes

The new year promises to breathe some new life into downtown Iowa City.

“We’re looking forward to 2015 because for the first time, we have a good roadmap of where we are going,” said Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District (ICDD). “We are redefining what Iowa City is all about.”

Armed with a recently-released study providing strategic direction to enhance the downtown shopping and dining experience, the ICDD is reviewing the data and will begin to implement the recommendations this year.

“The data reflects the new normal after the flood and the recession,” Ms. Bird said.

Last summer the ICDD, with support from the city of Iowa City, hired retail consulting firm Downtown Works for $45,000 to conduct the study, “Downtown Iowa City Retail Strategy.” The ICDD contributed $35,000 for the fees, while the city chipped in $10,000 for the company, which has offices in Philadelphia and Seattle.

“There was a lot of conversation about the balance of tenant mix downtown,” Ms. Bird said. “We needed more diversity.”

Ms. Bird, who returned to Iowa in 2012 after spending 10 years at an architecture, design and planning firm in Seattle, was familiar with several other projects Downtown Works had completed.

“We needed to hire expertise in the arena with historic buildings,” she said. “A fresh perspective from those who aren’t here every day is helpful.”

Downtown Works interviewed more than a dozen “stakeholders” in downtown Iowa City, including property owners, developers, city officials, business operators, workers and residents, to gauge their views on the state of downtown.

Some common threads of their conversations included:

  • Perceptions that there are too many bars downtown.
  • Discussions about the lack of commercial vacancies downtown, which leaves little space for national retailers.
  • The wonderful arts and cultural venues downtown
  • The fact that the Iowa River Landing in Coralville is competing for the same tenants as downtown.

“We need to stay competitive with developments on the fringes,” Ms. Bird said. While the University of Iowa is an important component of the downtown, the focus of this latest effort is to determine how to better serve the community as a whole, she noted.

The ICDD and the city realize a vibrant nightlife adds to the downtown’s draw, but want to strengthen the retail sector and other entertainment options.

“It isn’t the only thing going on downtown,” Ms. Bird said of the college bar scene.

With less emphasis on drinking establishments and more diverse programming, downtown Iowa City is attracting more community members, especially families.

“We had strong holiday campaigns with a lot of families coming downtown,” Ms. Bird said. “Sales increased, which is related to the economy getting stronger, but people are engaged.”

The ICDD also wants to attract professionals who are seeking higher-end dining and shopping.

Restaurants such as Pullman Bar and Diner, which opened last week at 17 S. Dubuque St., and Iowa Chop House, which opened in December at 223 E. Washington St., are “raising the bar,” Ms. Bird said.

A new face

As well as diversifying the type of shops and restaurants available, the downtown area needs to make aesthetic improvements to attract people, the Downtown Works study revealed.

Recommendations include livening up businesses’ window displays, signs and facades.

“There’s so much pedestrian traffic – they need to catch people’s eye and draw them into the stores,” Ms. Bird said. “Good design is good business.”

Other design elements that should be addressed in the coming months include unified downtown signage and streetscape updates planned by the city.

“One of the observations of the study was when in downtown Iowa City, you can’t tell what kind of businesses are there,” Ms. Bird said.

In order to implement the retail plan, Ms. Bird is already talking to the ICDD board about adding a position.

“The more we can help support businesses, the better we will be,” she said.

 

Pros/Cons

While conducting a study about the vitality of Iowa City’s downtown retail atmosphere, Downtown Works identified strengths and weaknesses. Here is a sample of what the retail consultants found:

Strengths:

Coming streetscape changes – parking made parallel, skinnier streets and wider sidewalks

Existing shops that are open on Sundays do good business

Recent changes that prohibit 19- and 20-year-olds from being in bars and that restrict the number of alcohol-focused establishments in downtown

New contemporary storefronts created in recent years

The potential redevelopment of the Jefferson Building at the southwest corner of Washington and Dubuque streets.

Weaknesses:

Signage is often inappropriately scaled for storefronts

Many existing storefronts have dark/tinted windows, obscuring window displays in stores and activity in eateries

An abundance of ATMs are in the core of downtown contributing to visual clutter

A number of storefronts are not being well-maintained

The city’s design review committee does not include a retail-centric architect

Recommendations

Downtown Works made the following recommendations after conducting a study on Iowa City’s downtown retail atmosphere:

  • Hire a retail recruiter: This “matchmaker” would work with prospects and downtown property owners to identify uses that fit with the merchandise plan.
  • Develop Retail Design Guidelines: Aspects of a well-branded storefront include materials, color, transparency and lighting.
  • Ensure the Continuity of Retail on the Pedestrian Mall: The vacant space adjacent to the Iowa City Library and fronted by its playground could be divided into two stores with separate entrances that could cater to families.
  • Recapture and Enhance Key Locations: The northwest and northeast corners of Dubuque and Washington streets are in prime positions as a gateway to the Pedestrian Mall. Improving these corners would boost the retail climate.