We’ve got the perfect quote for Iowa City, Iowa, when its stick-to-itiveness pursuit — years in the making — for a multipurpose building and park are finally completed in August 2019: “Only if you have been to the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”
The dubious Chauncey Project, on the corner of Gilbert and College streets, had its beginnings way back in January 2013. The intent was to create a downtown 15-story residential and commercial building that would include condominiums, apartments, hotel, movie theatre, bowling alley, coffee shop and other mercantile spaces.
However, all the plans, hopes and dreams of this endeavor were halted by nearly six years of legal battles before construction could even begin.
The Moen Group was selected to work on the venture but was held up repeatedly for one reason or another, mainly with a legal or political bent. According to Marc Moen, real estate developer and a former trial lawyer, the project was still slated for completion in August 2019, despite ongoing obstacles.
“The most challenging part of this whole thing is city approvals and weathering lawsuits to block the projects,” said Moen. “In Chauncey’s case, two cases went to the Iowa Supreme Court.”
Rockne Cole, attorney and now city council member, played an early part in the proceedings with the Coalition Against the Shadow in an attempt to lower the height of the building. This further delayed the project until the Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady ruled a denial in April 2016 for the coalition’s appeal of a Chauncey-linked rezoning.
“We formed the coalition to express concerns about the height next to residential neighborhoods as well as the subsidy,” said Cole, who was not opposed to height per se but felt a project of that magnitude should not be so close to historic neighborhoods.
“I now serve on the Iowa City Council. The project is now nearly built. I have never felt our community can advance by looking in the rearview mirror. I raised some concerns.
The majority of the then-council disagreed. It is now time to put that controversy to rest. I would love to see that project thrive.”
In December 2016, ground was finally broken for the new Chauncey complex by Marc Moen and other community and business leaders, with costs, originally at $49 million, going up to a currently estimated $55 million due to the many delays and other obstacles that occurred prior to construction.
Plans are for the first two floors to be commercial areas, said Moen, including a restaurant and lounge and a 12-lane bowling alley, etc.
Wendy Ford, Iowa City’s economic development coordinator, was in the earlier stages of the venture and gives an insight as to what all went down in the beginning.
“As one of many city staff people, there was the early challenge of selecting the preferred developer from 10 submissions at the start of the project,” said Ford. “There were political challenges after the selection from different groups of people who did not like various aspects of the project. There was also a legal challenge or two by a group.
“Other viewpoints would be held by contractors with construction challenges; from bankers who may have had difficulty underwriting a $50 million project; architectural and engineering, etc.”
Steven Rohrbach of Rohrbach & Associates, the project’s architecture firm, said,
“For us, the most challenging aspect of the project was convincing the community and the governing body that the Chauncey was the best project for the downtown area.”
Ford helped to determine how much city financing would be required, and obstacles followed.
“The city wanted to ensure the developer was maxing out his own loan capacity; that he had at least as much skin in the game as he was asking for from the city; and that he would not be ‘unduly enriched’ by the city’s financial participation, for example,” said Ford.
“Also, the city requested that there be some public benefits in the building, and in this case, the developer proposed a movie theatre, a bowling alley and five condo units to be purchased by the city for public housing inventory. This presented some challenges to the developer, too, as the public benefit aspects required subsidy, which complicated the question of how much city financial participation was merited.”
So, said Ford, it was difficult to pinpoint one main challenge as the developer would have his own opinion, as would the folks who live nearby and the residents who brought the lawsuit.
As of this writing, Ford said all that remains is to finish the building.
“They are almost done getting all the windows in and the exterior facing on, and I can tell they have started the interiors, but won’t be wrapping that up until late next summer,” said Ford. “After the construction is over, they have to spend $500,000 to rebuild Chauncey Swan Park, which has been in use as a construction staging zone since the project began.
“The park will be the last part of the project.
Part of the development agreement was that they could use the park as a construction staging area if they spent at least $500,000 on rebuilding it to a city-approved design. The little park next to the building and the park ramp are known as Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp and Chauncey Swan Park.”
Moen is working with Iowa City Parks and Recreation on the redesign of the park, which, in addition to the farmer’s market, will hold outdoor theaters. He said another attraction would be the two common areas in the first two levels, where “people can just hang out.”
Asked what advice they would give to another city administration that was considering tackling a similar project, both Moen and Ford offered their input.
“My recommendation is to take a long view,” said Moen. “It may take years to get through the process from inception to construction.”
Ford agreed, adding that a city with a parcel to sell to a preferred developer would do well to spend “a lot of time beforehand getting public input and refining their own goals for the project before putting out a request for proposals.”
Currently, of the 50 Chauncey condos offered for sale, 75 percent of them have been sold. They average about $500 per square feet, with the penthouses being higher priced.
“Additionally, there are 14 studio apartments and a boutique hotel,” said Moen, adding that other components include 35,000 square feet of office space, FilmScene’s new movie theaters, a 12-lane bowling center, a restaurant and Fix!, a new local coffeehouse.
“The fifth-floor roof terrace is about 6,000 square feet, and levels five, six and seven are a luxury boutique hotel with 650-square-foot rooms, each with high-end kitchens and floor-to-ceiling windows.”
Finally, what will the completion of the Chauncey Project mean to Iowa besides property tax dollars?
“It will also mean that a prime corner that sat vacant for decades will be active and exciting, and hundreds of thousands of people will come through the building,” said Moen, adding that this will also mean more services and entertainment downtown.
“This site was a vacant lot for over 40 years, which produced no tax revenue. Plaza Towers produces over $1,000,000 a year in property tax payment to the city, plus $150,000 or more a year in hotel/motel tax. It has become a main hub of downtown.”
Rohrbach summed up the perks of the Chauncey Project by saying that for him, the most rewarding part is creating great architecture for downtown Iowa City.