Iowa City City Council faces community pushback for Benton Hill Park prairie restoration

Community members from Miller Orchard neighborhood voiced their opposition to the Iowa City City Council concerning the proposed prairie restoration in the green space of Benton Hill Park.


Jake Maish

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague sits alone in City Hall while leading a city council meeting conducted over video chat due to health concerns caused by COVID-19 on Tuesday, April 21, 2020.

Rachel Schilke and Riley Davis

Ten emails from concerned Iowa City community members filled the Iowa City City Council’s mailbox before its Tuesday meeting asking city councilors to reconsider selecting a local neighborhood park as a site for prairie restoration.

Local neighborhood homeowner Lindsey Park sent an email to the City Council one hour before the deadline after learning the park had been selected as a proposed site.

“We are still reeling from the aggressive deforestation and increased concretization of the park,” Park said. “Prairie grass is a good idea for somewhere else, but not here.”

Many residents of Miller Orchard, the neighborhood that sits adjacent to the park, believe that while prairie restoration is supported and important to the community as a whole, there would not be enough green space left to be used for public benefit if the park was chosen.

Miller Orchard resident Mary Knudson said in an email to the City Council that the neighboring community feels the loss of green space even more with the loss of Roosevelt Education Center.

“In the past, the [Parks and Recreation department] have made decisions regarding our park without talking to anyone,” Knudson s

Jake Maish
Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague sits alone in City Hall while leading a city council meeting conducted over video chat due to health concerns caused by COVID-19 on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. The remaining members of city council participated from various locations and were projected on the wall of the almost-empty meeting room when they spoke. (Jake Maish/The Daily Iowan)

aid. “I am frankly stunned that we were not contacted until the day before this. This neighborhood … worked for decades to acquire this park.”

Prairies were also the subject of the April 7 City Council meeting, when public opinion swayed the city’s elected officials to vote unanimously against the MidAmerican solar plant at Waterworks Park to preserve the existing prairie land. Iowa City Sustainability Coordinator Brenda Nations said at the meeting that the solar project aligned with the city’s goals to diversify its portfolio and continue working toward its Climate Action Plan, as previously reported by The Daily Iowan.

RELATED: Iowa City City Council spikes solar energy project in Waterworks Prairie Park

While many Miller Orchard residents are in agreement with the City Council’s plan for environmental protection, residents said in multiple emails that the community does not believe putting a prairie in the park will be in the best interest of the citizens that visit the park daily.

“It is crucial that our working-class neighborhood retain a true center,” Park said, “so we can be something other than a bunch of houses and apartments.”

Iowa City City Councilor Susan Mims said she would like to see more outreach from city staff to community members, specifically those who sent in correspondence, in order to hear the public’s ongoing opinion on the matter.

“I think a big part of this [push back] are the big changes that have occurred to that park over the years. A lot of trees [have been removed] and the retaining wall [was added],” Mims said. “If you drive by that park, it looks so different than it used to.”

City Councilor John Thomas also thought the Benton Hill Park element of the project needed to engage the community in discussion and called for some “fine tuning” on the proposal.

“[The staff] should meet with the residents to see if there might need to be some adjustment to the scope of the work there, [such as] either reductions or expansions in certain areas,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important given the response that we saw [from the community] to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

Knudson said she would prefer community discussion before moving forward as a chance to address Miller Orchard’s concerns.

“We still have people and families here,” Knudson said. “We have always felt overlooked here, and again we see evidence why we feel that way.”