The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
BYLINE: Gregg Hennigan, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
IOWA CITY — Mike Wright spent a warmer-than-average Sunday morning in January sweeping 8 pounds of broken glass off the street outside his Iowa City home.
The glass, which Wright weighed, was from beer and liquor bottles apparently thrown in the street during a wild party the night before at a nearby group of student-occupied town homes at the corner of Lucas and Jefferson streets.
“I have to say that the town houses have been a screaming nightmare,” said Wright, 54, a former City Council member.
Similar complaints have the city considering changing zoning guidelines to halt the construction of large apartments in the neighborhoods near downtown and the University of Iowa campus.
On Tuesday, the City Council will hold a public hearing on an ordinance that would prohibit more than three unrelated people from living in one unit in neighborhoods near campus. That rule is already in effect everywhere else in the city.
Opponents are trying to get enough signatures on a petition to require the affirmative votes of six of the seven council members to change the ordinance, rather than the typical four votes.
Also, the council in a couple of weeks is expected to consider whether to set a public hearing on an ordinance preventing the construction of multifamily dwellings with more than three bedrooms per unit and limiting the number of three-bedroom units allowed. Another proposal would require more parking spaces for larger apartments.
Existing properties would be exempt if the new rules are adopted.
The proposals bring to a head a long-standing debate concerning the older neighborhoods near campus that have a mixture of college students and full-time residents.
Many of the permanent residents, and some city officials, believe those neighborhoods need protecting from an expanding market for student housing with three or more bedrooms and the issues that come with those larger apartments, like parties, parking problems and crime.
From 2003 to 2011, the top-three Iowa City neighborhoods for crimes reported were downtown, College Green and the Northside, in that order, according to Iowa City police data. College Green and Northside border downtown.
Crime in Northside and downtown dropped over those years, although the UI police have taken over some downtown patrols. College Green saw a 56 percent increase in 2011 compared with 2003.
Developers say they are meeting a demand for student housing and the city is overreacting. They also say the zoning changes would limit their ability to make a profit on projects.
“It would hurt a lot of property values, and the local economy is going to suffer,” said Jesse Allen.
He’s currently constructing a four-story building on East Washington Street that will include 30 apartments and was the source of public criticism earlier this year.
Casey Cook of Cook Appraisal in Iowa City said he thinks the city is taking a political view of an issue with serious economic implications.
An apartment survey his firm conducted last fall found the vacancy rate was less than 2 percent for all units within a one-mile radius of the Pentacrest on the UI campus. The area is short about 600 units, he said.
That has caused rents to rise and students to move farther out, which in turn reduces vacancies and increases housing costs in neighborhoods students traditionally do not live in, Cook said. Restricting housing developments aimed at college students would exacerbate the problem, he said.
Cook also said the zoning changes would hurt property values near campus. Land that supports three-bedroom units goes for about $70 per square foot, he said. If the potential density is decreased, no one will pay more than $30 to $40 a square foot, he said.
Iowa City Assessor Dennis Baldridge said his office values properties based on what is there, not what could be there. But he agreed with Cook that the more units allowed on a lot, the more someone is likely to pay.
Mike Oliveira, owner and general manager of Prestige Properties and Prestige Properties Development in Iowa City, said he would consider taking legal action against the city if it changed the zoning guidelines on density because that would devalue properties.
Prestige Properties has more than 40 rental units within eight blocks of downtown, and he said he owns properties he plans to eventually redevelop.
“That would be, easily, a million-dollar hit for our company,” Oliveira said.
Leslie Schwalm, who has lived on Market Street northeast of downtown for 18 years, said part of the problem is most landlords seem to view their rentals only as a source of income. The homes and yards are allowed to deteriorate, sidewalks are not shoveled, partying is not monitored, she said.
And as more single-family homes are replaced by apartments, more students move in and then leave after a year or two, said Schwalm, 56.
“It makes it so much harder to sustain a sense of neighborhood and community,” she said.
Schwalm, a professor, and others also point the finger at the UI. It has not built a new residence hall since 1968, and enrollment has increased 58 percent since then.
The UI converted a building into what is now Mayflower Hall in the early 1980s. Plans call for a new dorm to open in 2015.
Copyright 2012 The Gazette