By Gigi Wood

The University Heights planning and zoning commission voted last week to reject the recommendation of a proposed mixed-use development.

The vote was 3-2 against One University Place, which would be at 1300 Melrose Ave., on the northwest corner of Melrose and Sunset Street, where St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is located. Developer Jeff Maxwell of Maxwell Construction, said he will continue with the project and lobby the city council to approve it.

“The commission has chosen to be the public’s ear on this and I respect that,” Mr. Maxwell said. “We’re going to stay right on course with the very same plan and the very same mission.”

To move ahead with the project, the city would need to rezone the land from single-family residential to mixed-used commercial and residential.

The city council will likely host a public meeting on the issue June 2 and will need to approve three readings of the zoning ordinance for the project to move ahead.
More than 70 people attended the meeting, mostly residents who largely opposed the 93-condominium project that would likely break ground in 2012.

City attorney Steve Ballard told the audience that the council could include many restrictions in its contract with the developer if it voted to approve the zoning change, including criteria for what types of businesses would not be allowed to occupy the commercial space.

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church bought a 40-acre parcel of land at Melrose Avenue and Camp Cardinal Boulevard to make room for congregation growth. The church is in negotiations with Mr. Maxwell to sell the property to him, but the sale is contingent upon what the city council decides.

Maxwell Construction hosted three open houses during recent months to present the project to residents. The development would consist of two buildings and include commercial space on the first floor of the building closest to Melrose Avenue. Critics of the project say it’s too high density, does not fit in with the city’s comprehensive plan, will create too much traffic and destroy the community’s unique character.

Residents submitted a petition against the proposal signed by 196 people who are owners of 141 properties in University Heights. Because of this, the zoning change will require a super-majority vote by the council, with at least four approving it.

Johnson County’s assessor, Bill Greazel, was invited to the meeting to explain possible property tax changes if the development is constructed. He said the city collects $48.1 million in property taxes annually. If the project is built, assuming the numbers provided by the developer are correct and the residential and commercial spaces were filled, the city would collect $81.7 million in taxes, he said.

“I’ve never seen a negative impact on an area because of new development,” he said. “I’ve never seen a community increase its commercial base by 70 percent.”

There are concerns that the University of Iowa would buy the property if the Maxwell project fails. The UI Facilities Corp. bought the University Athletic Club next door and the UI owns the ravine behind the church. The corporation intends to sell the athletic club to the UI in 20 years for $1, planning and zoning officials said last week. Mr. Greazel said that if the athletic club is taken off the tax rolls, because the UI is tax-exempt, the city would lose about $2.2 million in taxes annually. He said it would take $5.5 million in residential taxable value to recoup that money.

One University Place would consist of two buildings, one commercial and residential and the other residential. The two-story building closest to Melrose Avenue would be set back from the street to make room for a fountain and city square. The first floor would contain commercial businesses and would provide various community amenities such as a drop-off for books from the Iowa City Public Library. Mr. Maxwell has offered to pay for the book drop-off service.

The second floor would contain 32 high-end condominiums that would feature French doors and a slate roof. The rear building would be a staggered three-to-six story building with two levels of underground parking. It would contain about 60 condos. Prices have not been determined, but condos would range from studio size to 3,000-square-foot penthouses. Park space would be installed behind the rear building, as well as a bridge that would lead to the athletic club.

Because of traffic concerns, Mr. Maxwell asked the Johnson County Council of Governments to conduct a traffic study on the property and present recommendations. The group’s suggestions were incorporated into the development design, such as adding a turn lane to Melrose Avenue and right-turn-only exits onto Melrose and Sunset.

Mr. Maxwell said if the purchase agreement and design plan are approved, he would begin streetscape work immediately, adding bus lanes and improving the adjacent water main. He is hoping the University Heights will approve the area for a tax-increment financing (TIF) district to help with the cost of the upgrades. CBJ