Past, Present, Future: What’s unchanged and new to the Pedestrian Mall
The Ped Mall is constantly changing as new attractions and shops come and go, like the additions of Daydrink and Roxxy in recent years, while other spots, like the Field House bar, have remained for decades.
April 12, 2022
This is the second part of a project series on the Pedestrian Mall. The first part appeared in The Daily Iowan on March 20.
In the daytime, the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall greets its guests with art.
To the left of the entrance located at the intersection of Clinton and College Streets is a bright blue mural from 2014, painted on the exterior wall of local frozen yogurt shop, Yotopia. The cow depicted near the end of the artwork smiles.
In the middle of the walkway is a bronze sculpture of three jazz musicians from 2001. The metal gleams in the moments just before the sun disappears behind the Old Capitol Mall.
Move deeper within, and the Weatherdance Fountain leads the way into the Ped Mall’s heart. Children can be seen zigzagging through the shooting streams of the fountain, which was added in 1999, on a warm summer day.
At the Dubuque Street entrance, a 2020 mural of animals around a campfire welcomes pedestrians entering the mall through the tunnel. A quick turn toward Washington street from there, and one will encounter two sculptures of granite and cut glass from 2000. A look back toward Linn Street, and there’s a sculpture of a man tying a child’s shoe by Jane DeDecker from 2001.
The artistic nature of Iowa City will greet passersby no matter from which direction they enter the Ped Mall. While physical art has a home there, the performing arts are represented as well through the various festivals held in the space, like the Iowa City Arts Festival.
At night, the majority of the Ped Mall’s visitors are bar crawlers. Admirers of art are replaced by people standing in a long, laughing line to enter Roxxy located on the southwest side. Music streams from the Field House bar located in the northeast area.
Music can be heard from every corner of the Ped Mall, provided by entertainers with guitars or saxophones seeking a tip. People pass by the mural on the walls of the Graduate Hotel near Dubuque Street. Art has been interwoven into the Ped Mall for decades.
While the area has undergone change, the memories made in the Ped Mall have not wavered. It’s the promise of good times in a highly decorated space that keeps people coming back — but the area has adapted in many ways to retain its beauty.
The four sculptures at different locations were added to the Ped Mall between 2000 and 2001, after the area’s 1999 renovations were completed. According to a 2013 article by The Daily Iowan, the Iowa City Public Arts Program funded the creation of the four sculptures, the Weatherdance fountain, and the Iowa Avenue Literary walk.
The first piece of art that resulted from the 2000s project that people often interact with is “Jazz” by Gary Alsum. Located near the East College and Clinton Streets entrance, Alsum told the DI the sculpture was inspired by the annual Iowa City Jazz Festival.
“I work with the National Sculptors Guild, and it was a project that was on their radar … We talked about it and got a little bit of similar ideas of what happens in Iowa City. One of the things that was mentioned was the Jazz Festical,” Alsum said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that would be kind of fun to do jazz musicians.’”
The sculpture took Alsum about three months to complete, he said. The artwork originally only featured two jazz musicians, a trumpet and saxophone player, but he decided to add a third player on the drums to balance the piece.
The sculpture’s dimensions are not accurately life-sized.
“It’s about 10 percent larger than life,” Alsum said. “It was pretty crazy sculpting, especially the saxophone. I had gotten to know that instrument pretty well and had to lay on my back to do some of it.”
“Jazz” is one of just seven editions of the piece in existence, and Alsum said he is proud of his work that remains in the Ped Mall.
“It’s just a real honor to think that something I’ve done is out there and that’s one I’m still really happy with,” he said.
On the opposite side of the Ped Mall, a bronze sculpture faces the opposite side of the Ped Mall facing the playground outside the Iowa City Public Library. “The Ties That Bind” by DeDecker depicts a father crouching down to tie his son’s shoe for him.
The final two pieces of art placed in the Ped Mall following the 1999 renovations are “Solar Marker” and “Balance,” both by Christoph Spath. According to the online art map by Iowa City’s Public Art Advisory Committee, the sculptures were chosen through a public selection process.
The pieces formerly resided in Black Hawk Mini Park in the Ped Mall, but were moved during the area’s most recent renovation in 2019 to their current locations near Aspen Leaf Frozen Yogurt and DC’s Sports Bar.
Map by Jami Martin-Trainor/The Daily Iowan
Scott Sovers, Iowa City assistant city engineer, said the 2018-19 Ped Mall project intended to replace aging infrastructure and make the area more ADA compliant.
“There were quite a few areas where the slopes on the existing pavements were out of spec in regards to making it ADA compliant,” Sovers said. “Of course, there’s areas even today where there’s some civic challenges, where we had to put some stairs in, but we did significantly improve the accessibility within the entire Ped Mall.”
During the 2018-19 renovations, the city replaced all the brick in the Ped Mall and placed a concrete slab underneath. According to Sovers, the Ped Mall project originally called for spot repair work, but the city decided to replace all the brick when they realized some bricks did not match others in the area.
“It’s like, OK, we could replace some of the bricks in the paving that are in bad shape, but it’s not going to match everything else,” Sovers said. “We decided at that time it made sense: ‘Hey, let’s just completely overhaul everything and get it done once, and then we don’t have to touch it for a number of years.’”
According to Sovers, the same project included:
- The replacement of a majority of the underground existing public utilities
- Removal and reinstallation of the limestone planters
- Removal of trees reaching the end of their life and planting new trees in their place
- New electrical lighting work and uplighting of the trees
- Construction of a new performance stage in front of the Graduate Hotel
- Renovation of the Weatherdance Fountain’s working components, the addition of lights, and upgrading to a mini pool system that recycles the water by using an underground storage tank
While the project moved the sculptures out of Black Hawk Mini Park, Sovers said, the city put in footings in the open space where the art was for a future shade structure, under where people can relax out of the sun’s reach.
“There was quite a bit of interest in providing a shade structure in Black Hawk Mini Park. Unfortunately, because of budget, we weren’t able to add that shade structure,” Sovers said. “The thought is, some point down the road when we get the budget for it, we could add it.”
The city opted to create two brick story walls during the renovations. The first is the “A Mark was Made” panel at the southeast corner of Black Hawk Mini Park. The approximately 8-foot by 29-foot wall bears the names of people who have shaped and influenced Iowa City.
The second wall faces the Clinton Street entrance to the Ped Mall and has the poem “Writers in a Cafe” by Marvin Bell inscribed on it. According to the wall, Bell, who was the first Poet Laureate of Iowa and a professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wrote the poem when Iowa City became a UNSECO City of Literature in 2008.
Despite the Ped Mall’s renovations, much of its art has remained untouched, including the mural on the brick exterior wall of Yotopia Frozen Yogurt that faces the “Writers in a Cafe” piece.
The mural, which was painted in 2014 and is named “Is This Heaven? No, It’s the Ped Mall,” was commissioned by Yotopia owner Veronica Tessler.
Tessler said she wanted a mural to brighten up the then-blank wall and for the piece to be a visual welcome to the area.
“Over the years, [the wall] had been graffitied a couple of times … so I was like ‘Maybe that’s not the look we want for the entrance to our beloved Pedestrian Mall,” Tessler said. “I just kind of got this idea stuck with me: I want to find an artist to do something big on here.”
The idea to depict the farmland from which Yotopia sources its yogurt came to Tessler in Hawkeye, Iowa. Tessler said the mural helps make the connection between the “beautiful, rural part of Iowa” to a brick-and-mortar store.
Tessler commissioned local artist and University of Iowa art educator Megan Dehner to paint the mural, which took three weeks to complete.
Dehner said the support that businesses provide local artists keeps art alive and well in Iowa City.
“Local businesses like Yotopia and owners like [Tessler], they really are the lifeblood of helping downtown thrive and supporting artists and the community,” Dehner said. “Art helps amplify the vibrancy in the voices that are already here, so why don’t we want lots of it?”
Dehner said she is glad her work is still available for the public to enjoy.
“It obviously is a form of ownership that I feel very honored to have and it feels warm and fuzzy and really nice to be able to say that people are looking at something that hopefully brings them a smile as they walk a place that always gives me a reason to smile,” Dehner said.
The newest addition to the Ped Mall’s art scene is the “Campfire Stories” mural, by Drew Etienne, a UI visiting professor in the School of Art and Art History. The mural painted on the new Dubuque Street entrance to the Ped Mall depicts various animals listening to stories.
Down the street from “Campfire Stories” is the newly opened Riverside Theatre location at 119 E. College Street, the result of the longstanding theater’s recent move from its old location on Gilbert Street. Formerly housing the Soap Opera, which closed in 2015, the 1890s era building is once again home to live theatre.
Adam Knight, Riverside Theatre producing artistic director, said the partnership allowed the theater to dream big about what it wanted in the new location.
“It gave us, from a geographic perspective, a chance to be where the action is, to be in the center of what’s already this burgeoning arts district in the heart of downtown and to be a player in that,” Knight said.
While the Englert Theatre and FilmScene have been located in central Iowa City for years, Knight said the addition of a stage production theater is still important.
“We now think of Iowa City as the ‘Greatest Small City for the Arts,’ and a great city for the arts needs the performing arts, needs a great theater,” Knight said. “Placing a professional theater in the center of that district was an important statement to make.”
Riverside’s location allows the theater to tap into the “civic identity” the Ped Mall creates, Knight said.
“[The Ped Mall] connects us to people that maybe come from different places or have different backgrounds than ourselves. It creates that kind of communal spirit, and that’s what the arts do,” Knight said. “They provide identity, they provide local stories and local opportunities for people to tell their stories. The arts are what make cities great.”
The new Riverside Theatre location is about 25 percent larger than its old space on Gilbert Street, and has seated sizable audiences, Knight said. He feels “really strong” about the organization’s audience and the prospect of higher turnouts as spring arrives.
Before Roxxy, Manager Tetyana Kedyk ran Martini’s which was located at the same space.
“The spot was kind of always important to me, and I always watched it kind of flourish and then die down with COVID and everything,” Kedyk said. “It’s just been nice to see the space being brought back to life again and people use it again around town.”
Being located in the Ped Mall brings in a lot of customers for Roxxy, Kedyk said.
“We have a prime location in my opinion. We’ll get a lot of foot traffic from football games and just student life in general,” she said. “I think if we were anywhere else, that probably wouldn’t be the same outcome.”
Kedyk said the bar has garnered a lot of great feedback. People have enjoyed going into the bar and seeing its transformation from the old space to the new space, she said.
“It’s nice being able to see the space get a fresh coat of paint and just put some life and love into it, making it something new again,” Kedyk said.
While Roxxy may be new to Iowa City and the Ped Mall, its neighbor down the block has a history in the Ped Mall. The Field House bar has been located in the area since it opened in 1975.
According to an August 1975 article by the DI, the Field House was “Iowa City’s newest bar.” Originally located at 111 E. College St., the longtime Hawkeye favorite now inhabits 118 S. Dubuque St.
Field House General Manager Nick Miller wrote in an email to the DI that his company bought the business in 2003 when it was still located on College Street.
“We operated at that location for about 8 years before moving the business to Dubuque Street,” he wrote. “The main reason for moving was we were unable to come to terms on a new lease.”
At that point, the Field House opted to be located in the Ped Mall where it originated.
“We knew we wanted to stay in the Ped Mall because it is close to campus and gets heavy foot traffic,” Miller wrote. “Being in the Ped Mall has definitely helped our business over the years. When people think of hot spots to go at night, they think of the Ped Mall.”
With the Field House’s rich history, Miller wrote that he enjoys hearing how it has impacted generation after generation of Hawkeyes.
“It is nice to hear stories from alumni that come back to Iowa City and talk about all the fun and crazy times they had at the Field House,” he wrote. “I hope to keep hearing those stories for years to come.”
Though the Field House remains majorly unchanged, the Ped Mall will continue to see new developments. As previously reported in 2021, the Tailwind Group was awarded $12.25 million in tax increment financing rebates for the development of spaces in the College, Crescent, and Dooley Block buildings.
The $56 million dollar project came after the group approached the city to buy the Union’s old location and decided to form a bigger project and purchase the 100 block of East College Street.
Wendy Ford, Iowa City economic development coordinator, said a reason the city was willing to offer financial assistance was the group’s interest in keeping historic buildings the same.
“They came back and said, ‘Okay, well, we really want to save these historic buildings because we know they are critical to the genuine character of downtown Iowa City,” Ford said. “They’ve been there since 1895.”
Ultimately, the Tailwind Group opted to destroy the back half of the larger buildings to make way for the apartment building it is currently constructing, called “The Nest,” and expected to house residents by this fall.
The group also opted to pay a fee in lieu of providing affordable housing within the complex, which totaled to a $1.8 million sum it paid to Iowa City that then goes toward the Affordable Housing Fund.
Ford said the plans to destroy the backs of the buildings on College Block were also appealing to the city, as officials considered the buildings too big for businesses. In destroying the extra space, the Tailwind Group also planned to divide up the storefronts which could result in more leased spaces, she said.
“After the bars left, those spaces were 6,000 square feet, which is about five or six times more square feet than most retail businesses are interested in,” Ford said. “So, they became kind of these really unwieldy spaces that nobody wanted to rent, much less rehab.”
The city also liked that the group wanted to bring Riverside Theatre to the Ped Mall.
Though some of these spaces developed by the Tailwind Group are already inhabited by organizations like Riverside Theatre and Roxxy, more are expected to come to Iowa City.
“The renovations of the historic buildings are probably three-quarters of the way done, is what I would guess,” Ford said. “I think they’re working on the tenant improvements for the businesses that will be leasing space in those buildings and each one has a different tenant, so the schedules will be different depending on that tenant. But I would say they’re in the final stages for sure.”
In Ford’s opinion, building upon the current foundation of the Ped Mall and what it contains is important to keep downtown Iowa City authentic.
“When you can see the old 1895 buildings, next to newer buildings and see that sort of fabric of the community that comes together, that’s really important,” Ford said. “You have to be able to celebrate the old and ensure that a lot of the old stays, if you’re going to allow growth and significant change to come. There’s this trade-off that has to be made.”