For Iowa Citians, planning for the future means dealing with the problems of the present, and the past.
That was apparent at a Iowa City planning workshop hosted by the city planning staff Wednesday night at the Iowa City West High School cafeteria, as current and past problems bubbled up as the approximately 50 attendees attempted to brainstorm a way forward.
The event, one of two scheduled workshops, was designed as a way for small workshop groups to help inform the city's comprehensive plan, which will be updated later this year after having last been revamped in 1997. A "Good Ideas" website also allows people to submit their ideas about planning online.
City Planner Bob Miklo said the workshops are part of an attempt to collect public opinion that will help the process along as the city staff works on the plan.
"We'll take all of that, and compare it to our current comprehensive plan and see what needs changing," he said.
Miklo said that the comprehensive plan works as an overarching set of policies that spell out the city's goals for growth and development. While not an ironclad mandate, the plan does inform planning and zoning decisions. It also provides a guideline for individual planning districts, as they make changes more frequently.
In other words, these workshops are a way for Iowa City residents to get in on the ground level for the next 10 to 20 years of development.
A day earlier, and only a few miles away, the building formerly housing the Red Avocado and Defunct Books was demolished, making way for an apartment building. This loss of a well loved vegetarian restaurant, and the to prevent it from being replaced by a high density apartment space, was just one of the latest in a series of developments that have angered longtime residents.
The question lingering in the air for the workshop attendees was how to encourage the development of Iowa City without losing its individual character, its businesses and culture that make it unique. How to allow it become what it will become without losing the great thing that it used to be?
Sitting across from another at a table covered in maps, members of one of the workshop groups were locked in this debate Iowa City is having with itself.
"I don't think growing is the way to maintain sustainability," said Billy Zelsnack of Iowa City. "If we start looking at things from the perspective of how to deal with growth, then growth is what you're going to get."
Zelsnack argued further that the key to keeping Iowa City great was to inhibit growth, to prevent it to become an urban sprawl like Chicago. If Coralville wanted to develop like that, let them, he argued, as it would allow Iowa City to focus on its strengths.
In response, Jerry Anthony, an urban planning professor at the University of Iowa, said that the Iowa City metro area has seen a great degree of growth in the last 10 years, and there is no indication that this will slow down any time soon. He said this indicates Iowa City will continue to grow, but the main question is how it to grow more intelligently.
"We need to think more regionally in our planning," Anthony said. "Everything points to Iowa City growing no matter what the city does."
Anthony cited Portland as a city that grew responsibly and maintained a similar character to Iowa City. He said shunning growth would just cause businesses to move to growth friendly North Liberty and Coralville.
Speaking of Coralville, at a nearby table, Saul Mekies, who teaches economics at Kirkwood Community College, was lamenting how Coralville has passed Iowa City by in the last 20 years.
Why, he wondered aloud, with all the talent and creativity in the Iowa City area, had Coralville been allowed to rise into a creative development power while Iowa City sat dormant nearby, stagnating.
"I've seen it (Iowa City) becoming transformed, and not for the best," Mekies said. "I see Coralville completing all of these creative ideas, creating a main street out of a strip, and I wonder why can't Iowa City do things like that, too?"
For example, Mekies' group pondered how to encourage growth in and around the Sycamore Mall, after Coralville enticed Sycamore's anchor store, Von Maur, .
While there were no readily apparent answers to these questions, there was some successful brainstorming sessions. Some ideas overheard in the room included providing community garden and arts spaces, giving incentive to businesses to renovate and open shop in depressed properties, rethinking the city's bus routes, encouraging walkability, discouraging mixed use commercial property spaces that lead to vacancies at the bottom of apartment buildings, and spreading arts and culture performances to other areas besides the downtown as a way of introducing the community to a different part of the city.
Iowa City resident Ariane Parkesperret said she appreciated the opportunity to be a part the workshop. Not only did it expose her to what ideas are out there, she said, it also provided the opportunity for her to give input, beyond just a more distanced offering of input provided during city council public comment time.
"I think this was a wonderful opportunity to be involved in a conversation that will impact the city's future within the next several years," she said
Are you sorry you missed out on the workshop? Another will be held on Feb. 9 in the Southeast Junior High School cafeteria from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
People interested in attending the workshop are asked to R.S.V.P. at this website so city staff can plan seating. Late comers are still welcome, however.
Public comments and ideas also can be directed to this section of the Good Ideas website. The site has been collecting ideas from the community since December, and you can see the ideas that have been submitted right on the