Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Hot Winter in University Heights

A Hot Winter in University Heights

University Heights voters missed out on November's community polarizing Iowa City 21 bar vote, but they have a controversy of their own to vote about.

Early voting in the University Heights special election has already doubled the pace from the city's record turnout 2009 city election, with 139 votes already returned out of 872 registered voters.

The voters that are left to vote, if any, will go to the polls two weeks from today, on the second best election date ever, 1/11/11. (The best: the Primary To Hell on 6/6/6.) And they'll be voting, ironically, at ground zero of the fight: the St. Andrew church on Melrose Avenue.

The church, you see, is looking to move and redevelop the property next to a wooded ravine. Vacant lots of any sort are rare in this independent city that is completely surrounded by Iowa City and is usually best known for its enthusiastic enforcement of the speed limit.

Developers have proposed One University Place, a six-story residential and commercial project. The development was the central issue of the 2009 election, which saw a ten-candidate field for five seats. (University Heights elects the whole council, and the mayor, every two years.) In near-gubernatorial 50 percent turnout, a super-majority of four supporters of the development were elected, along with one opponent.

But council member Amy Moore, a project supporter, resigned her seat over the summer. The remaining four members appointed another supporter, Jim Lane. Opponents of the project petitioned for a special election.

That's been delayed till now because University Heights allows for a primary election if enough candidates file. That's never happened, but it would have if one more candidate had run in 2009. The longer time frame caused schedule conflicts that prevented combining the vote with the November 2 general election, though project opponents argue that the council could have held a special meeting to meet deadlines and deliberately chose not to do so.

In the meantime, the council voted on December 14 to rezone the church property. That's not a final step but it is a move ahead.

The one hard and fast rule in petitioned special elections around here, municipal or county-wide, is that the side that petitions loses and that the person who was appointed in the first place runs and wins. Lane is hoping to extend that streak; project opponent Rosanne Hopson is hoping to end it.

I'm agnostic in this one. What's the better environmental case: infill development over sprawl, or preservation of the ravine area? I have friends on both sides. But just as an observer, as a resident of the near west side I pass though our odd little geopolitical enclave often and the sign war is at presidential levels. General observation: the green and white Hopson signs increase with proximity to the church, the yellow and black Lane signs increase with distance from the church. The whole city is one precinct so there's no geographic breakout of the 2009 results to use as a benchmark.

What I do know is this is, in proportion to size of electorate, the hottest special election we've seen around here in ages, even bigger than the legislative specials when the House caucus comes to doorknock the district. The record to shoot for is the 1999 Swisher election when voters decided whether the city should establish and operate a municipal waterworks utility. That's it. That's the whole ballot question. "Shall the City of Swisher, Johnson County, Iowa, establish and operate a municipal waterworks utility for the City?" No minor details like, oh, how much will it cost and how do we pay for it. 70 percent turnout (compare that to 79 percent in the 2008 presidential) and 72 percent no. I remember the mayor resigning soon after.

1 comment:

Alice said...

I agree this is a hot election. Your coverage of it though missed some important facts. The proposed development is two buildings, not one. The back building has the footprint of the Levitt Center, with two more stories. The front, three story building includes six businesses, so this development is projected to have twice the traffic of Grandview, with one-third the street access, and that sole access onto congested Melrose Avenue.

It is a classic case where one plus one doesn't add up to two. The design is elegant, the site is lovely, but this design on this site is a marriage made in heck, or as I sometimes say, fifty pounds of potatoes in a ten pound sack.

You also missed the efforts of many to find a compromise ground on the ravine. This deep, environmentally sensitive ravine is not essential to the development. 241 citizens asked the council to keep it zoned as it was, and this was endorsed by an outside, impartial expert who confirmed that having a buffer zone between a large development and a residential neighborhood was good policy. The council's only reason to rezone it to commercial was that the developer thought that perhaps he might want to do something (he didn't know what) with it later.

As you say, we are setting history here. Perhaps this will be the first election by petition to succeed. Certainly many are working hard to that end.