Riverside finds a new home in Ped Mall

After leaving its building on Gilbert Street mid-2020 because of the pandemic, a new redevelopment project in the Pedestrian Mall will give Iowa City’s professional theater company a new home.


Jake Maish

Riverside Theatre’s former location on Gilbert Street is seen on Sunday, April 26, 2020.

Josie Fischels, Arts Editor

After spending the past seven months without a place to call home, Riverside Theatre’s return to downtown Iowa City is finally in view.

The theater announced that it would leave its building on Gilbert Street — its home for 30 years — at the start of summer 2020, largely due to pandemic-related financial strains and limitations.

As part of a $56 million redevelopment plan of the Pedestrian Mall’s 100 block of East College Street, Riverside will eventually move into the Crescent Building, the former home of the Union Bar and Revival before the bar’s closure and the clothing store’s temporary online transition.

The commercial revitalization and historic preservation of the College, Crescent, and Dooley Block buildings, led by the Tailwind Development Group, was officially green-lit by the Iowa City City Council at a meeting on Jan. 19. Riverside Producing Artistic Director Adam Knight wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that the move will be an important step in cementing live, professional theater’s significance in the heart of the community.

It was important that our next step be one that would further Riverside’s role in the community and sustain the kind of art we create. I believe we’ve found that through this project,” Knight wrote.

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The new space will feature a 150-seat fully flexible black box theater, designed by Neumann Monson Architects, on the building’s third floor. The lobby area will be much larger than Riverside’s former space and holds its own opportunities for programming, Knight wrote, including concerts, cabarets, and readings.

At the city council meeting, Iowa City Economic Development Coordinator Wendy Ford said that the move will make Riverside one of the only above-ground-floor theaters in the city’s history. An early Iowa City above-ground-floor theater, she noted, was the Coldren Opera House located at 105 College Street before its closure in 1912.

Ford said that Tailwind and the theater have negotiated a discounted rent to make Riverside’s long-term presence possible downtown, despite the impact it will have on financing the project. In an open letter written by Riverside Board co-chairs Lois Cox and Cynthia Schmidt, the leaders said discussions and tentative plans for the move had been discussed for over a year prior to city council approval.

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“Iowa City’s support for the arts and cultural resources has great precedence,” Ford said during the meeting. “Capital expenses such as these are similar to those the city has supported in the past between Englert, FilmScene, [Public Space One], and the type of business that truthfully create the foundation for one of the strongest arts scenes in the nation for a city of our size.”

While Knight described the theater’s official move-in date as a “moving target” because of the pandemic, the theater’s construction is slated to be an early phase of the project. He wrote that the company hopes to welcome audiences into the new space within the next year.

In the meantime, Riverside has not gone dark despite its lack of a brick-and-mortar location. The theater has spent its 40th anniversary season presenting virtual one-man shows and holding several other online events, which Knight told the DI the theater plans to continue throughout the spring.

While we’ve temporarily lost the ability to gather like before – and the catharsis and joy that can bring for artists and audiences alike – we’ve also gained an awareness that stories can exist in many forms, across geography, utilizing filmed media in new ways,” Knight wrote. “I see Riverside continuing to expand its reach through virtual offerings even when ‘normal’ returns. Stories matter. And the stage is just one place to share them.”