by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – Customers can find it all in Iowa City’s northside neighborhood.

From used books, specialty beers and unique knick-knacks to cheeseburgers, falafels, pizza and hash browns known far and wide, the Northside Marketplace area is home to the Hamburg Inn, Pagliai’s Pizza and John’s Grocery, all popular family-run establishments that customers seek out daily.

Many of the businesses have operated in the neighborhood, in 100-year-old buildings, for generations. While the history of the area makes it unique, business owners are not feeling nostalgic about the trip-and-fall hazards plaguing the neighborhood. Several years ago, brick was added alongside many of the sidewalks in the area. Now that brick is sinking, causing customers to trip and fall as they enter and leave businesses.

Instead of complaining about it, dozens of business owners in the area decided to do something about it. And now the city is investing $452,000 in improvements. About a year ago, Cindy Clark, manager of I.C. Ugly’s Saloon, 210 N. Linn St., next to the Hamburg Inn, started knocking on business’ doors to gauge interest in a collaborative advertising piece in The Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa’s student newspaper.

Thirty-eight businesses signed on and many of them began meeting every third Wednesday at Corridor State Bank, 202 N. Linn St. to discuss ways to better market the area. The discussion shifted to safety concerns and aesthetics.

“We’d all get together about our concerns about the neighborhood,” Ms. Clark said. “Dave (Panther, owner of the Hamburg Inn) and I are very, very adamant about the safety of the streets and sidewalks.”

The group invited members of the city council to tour the area and while talking at the Hamburg Inn, a woman carrying an infant tripped and fell outside. City crews laid asphalt to the drop-off the next day, but the quick-fix was less than appealing.

“There were some concerns expressed from the businesses up there basically that stuff is getting to be worn out and there are some trip-and-fall hazards,” said Jeff Davidson, Iowa City’s planning and community development director. “We went with some asphalt up there, which basically made it safe again as far as eliminating the trip-fall hazards, but it kind of looked like hell.”

The city plans to make more permanent improvements to a two-block area between Linn Street to the west, Bloomington Street to the north, Jefferson Street to the south and Gilbert Street to the east. The council added a $500,000 earmark to its capital improvements plan for fiscal 2011, which starts July 1, to make the changes.

“It was compelling enough to the city council,” Mr. Davidson said. “So we’re going to begin the design of that project.”

Confluence, an Iowa City firm, will begin design work for the area this summer to make sidewalk, curb and lighting improvements, add bicycle racks, benches, planters, ashtrays and trash cans to the neighborhood.

“We don’t want to be beginning the construction in the fall anyway when that area gets really busy, so we’ll hold off and begin the construction first thing next year,” he said.

Once the improvements are made, it could be possible for businesses such as the Hamburg Inn and Oasis Falafel, 206 N. Linn St., to add sidewalk cafes.

“It is possible for the businesses up in the block that doesn’t really have any, the Hamburg Inn, the falafel place,” Mr. Davidson said. “Certainly it’s not going to be a lot of tables, but if a business desired to squeeze in a row of tables right along the building face and still keep 8 feet clear, if one of them wanted to pursue that, it would be a matter of them coming and sitting down with us and basically us looking at the design and seeing if it will fit in.”

Ofer Sivan, co-owner of Oasis Falafel, said the possibility of adding seating outside and making improvements to the area is appealing.

“If it’s something that’s kosher, then we’ll definitely think about it, at least another bench out there, because we don’t really have table service anyway,” he said. “If they redesign, do some bike racks, some seating and trees it will just make the whole neighborhood look great.”

The city is also pursuing grant money to extend the Literary Walk, a series of bronze relief panels along sidewalks downtown that celebrate the works of accomplished writers.

“We’re not going to have the literary markers flush with the pavement like they are on Iowa Avenue, just because there’s been some issues with that design. We’ve had some of them pop up and create that hazard of people tripping on them,” Mr. Davidson said. “So we’re going to use a different design but it will essentially be the same effect where there will be literary passages.”

The city is waiting for the UI to decide the fate of Seashore Hall, an academic building along the passageway from downtown to the northside. Until then, the city will install temporary wayfinding signs to direct pedestrians between the two areas.

“If (the building) comes down, we don’t want to have spent a lot of money in that area,” he said.

Meanwhile, the group of business owners are planning a festival in October. They hope to shut down Market Street, set up a stage for bands and serve food and drinks from the surrounding restaurants and bars.

“When downtown has an event, we want to have an event,” Ms. Clark said.
Mr. Sivan said he would like the northside neighborhood to receive some of the same perks as downtown.

“We’ve always been a bit resentful of the (pedestrian) mall area. They get Christmas lights and they get all this stuff, they get a street sweeper every morning and we don’t get any of that,” he said. “Even the snow plowing seems to be low on the list. But when we complain they seem to listen, so I guess the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”