Thomas A. Stewart
After a monthslong battle in City Hall, a controversial building project may move forward soon.
In the Iowa City City Council work session on Dec. 4, four of the seven city councilors informally signaled they favor allowing the maximum height bonuses to the proposed Pentacrest Garden apartments.
Councilors Mazahir Salih, Susan Mims, Rockne Cole, and Bruce Teague said they would be in favor of the height bonuses; Councilors John Thomas, Pauline Taylor, and Mayor Jim Throgmorton would not. The council will hold an official vote at a later time when the developers’ plans are completed.
The project, led by Axiom Consultants, proposed building four 15-story apartment buildings at 12 E. Court St. The buildings will be designed for student housing, and the current plan shows 1,000 units among the four buildings. The project is planned to be completed in 2023.
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The form-based code for the Riverfront Crossings District, where the proposed buildings will be located, allows for a maximum building height of eight stories, with opportunities for up to seven height bonuses based on criteria outlined by the City Council.
Salih said affordable housing was the driving force behind her decision to support the height bonuses. Buildings in Riverfront Crossings are required to have 10 percent of their units designated as affordable housing, Salih said, or the developers can pay a fee to the city’s affordable housing fund that would match the price of those units.
Salih’s decision to approve the height bonuses was contingent upon the fee, which she wants the developers to pay to the city upfront.
“This is an opportunity for us to build … affordable housing that will be affordable for a long time,” Salih said.
A number of other controversies surrounding the project were discussed at the City Council’s Dec. 4 work session.
Throgmorton had concerns about the experience of the architects. The pre-application submitted to the council cited a number of similar buildings the firm had worked on in the area, but Throgmorton was not persuaded.
“I saw no evidence … that they have experience designing the kind of high-quality student housing that we’re talking about,” Throgmorton said.
Another point of contention among the councilors is what the buildings would do to vacancy rates in the city.
In a memo to the council on Nov. 17, Throgmorton noted that vacancy rates in the city had reached 4.4 percent in 2017 and were projected to increase to 7 percent by 2019. He also expressed concern about the UI’s dropping enrollment rate and how that will affect vacancy rates.
However, other councilors saw the project as a way to decrease rents in the city. Councilors Teague and Mims said they think the project will bring more people to the city, increasing competition and driving down prices.
“I am convinced that it is going to help us in bringing rents down in other locations,” Mims said during the work session.
Throgmorton said he would be comfortable with giving height bonuses up to an average of 12 stories among the four buildings. However, Rob Decker, the project leader, said that at a certain height, the cost of a building increases dramatically.
“That’s exponential to go to that cost, and you need to get to a certain level to pay back that cost,” he said. “The difference between 12 and 15 can make or break a project.”
With four of the seven councilors giving the project the thumbs up, the developers will most likely begin working on a design to present to the council in the next couple months, City Manager Geoff Fruin said.