Iowa City Considers Local, National Historic Designations For Downtown

Oct 23, 2018

Iowa City officials are considering local and national historic designations for the city’s central business district. The changes could mean greater protections but also more regulations for new construction downtown. 

The city commissioned a formal survey of the historic buildings in the downtown district, which is dotted with pre-1900 era buildings, some of which face the state's Old Capitol Building, and the oldest of which dates back to 1856.

The potential historic district drawn by consultant Alexa McDowell is bounded by South Clinton Street, East Burlington Street, South Gilbert Street and Iowa Avenue, and includes the city's pedestrian mall. Now largely made up of a busy swath of restaurants, bars and retail shops, the district was also once home to saloons, a tea room, a tin shop, a cigar store, and the old Iowa City Press-Citizen building.

McDowell says the designations are a valuable tool for steering new development in a way that preserves the city's character. 

"Our story is about change in many ways. It's about how do we adapt the buildings around us to maintain a character," McDowell said. "But as that happens, if you don't protect the old stuff as it ages, whether it's frozen in 1870 or it was changed in 1950, it will be obliterated."

McDowell recommends the city takes steps to apply for a National Register of Historic Places designation and implement a local landmark designation, to cover the entire district, and to immediately protect certain individual buildings of particular importance. Placing a building on the national register is largely ceremonial, and while it doesn't carry any regulatory teeth when it comes to protections, it can open up access to funding for preservation. Designating a building a local landmark doesn't carry the same gravitas as the national recognition, but can entail enforceable guidelines on new construction. 

Preservationists say that without guiderails like these designations, some cities lose significant buildings that help create the fabric of the community, as Iowa City did in the 1970s and 1980s. New construction that leveled hundreds of buildings was part of a nationwide movement in the mid 20th century of "urban renewal". Mayor Jim Throgmorton, who is an Emeritus Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, says it was a hugely impactful time.

“Major swaths of older neighborhoods and downtowns were obliterated," Throgmorton said. "A phrase that was used at the time was 'wipe the slate clean and make it new.' So that was the idea. There actually was a proposal here in Iowa City to wipe out the whole core of downtown and replace it with an enclosed mall. Surrounded by parking.”

But McDowell notes, the urban renewal era led to some positive developments as well, including Iowa City's pedestrian mall. 

Still, some city council members aren't convinced the designations are worth the tradeoffs, particularly the local landmark. Member Susan Mims worries the change could constrain businesses the keep the city's downtown alive.

"There definitely are different perceptions about how restrictive we are being as a city with our ordinances and with the application of those guidelines that make, I think, a lot of people very uncomfortable with allowing the city to have that much oversight on their property," Mims said. 

City councilmembers say they want more public feedback from residents, business owners and the city's historic preservation commission before they make any decisions.