Iowa City Council Candidate Interviews

 

Friends of Historic Preservation reached out to get to know the candidates vying for the 4 open City Council seats in the upcoming November 2019 election. We believe it is important to understand how each candidate values the history and preservation of Iowa City. These values signal how the candidate might view and vote on ordinances and city planning issues that directly impact the preservation of historic buildings and districts in Iowa City. 

FHP has prepared a brief candidate survey with the following goals:

 

1-To educate our community about each candidate’s attitudes about preservation

2-To allow candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of local preservation issues

3-To introduce candidates unfamiliar with FHP to our organization

Candidates were sent our questions to respond to in writing after a face-to-face meeting and conversation with a Friends of Historic Preservation board member. Responses are provided verbatim and in order of response submission.

John Thomas

Position sought: Council District C (one seat; no challengers)

1. What is your favorite historic building in Iowa City and why?

 

This is a hard question. One of my greatest concerns as a member of City Council is preserving and enhancing the integrity/livability of Iowa City’s neighborhoods. From the standpoint of historic preservation, our historic and conservation districts are more aligned with that concern. However, one building type – neighborhood schools - addresses the question while also addressing my concerns with neighborhoods. As a Northside resident, I am most familiar with and attached to Horace Mann Elementary School. In fact, I love Horace Mann, as many others have since it opened in 1917.  

 

The recently completed renovation and expansion of Mann maintains the presence of Iowa City’s past, so critical to its identity. It is the one remaining school within the original plat of the City, and its only truly urban school. Looking to the future, the project brought the building into compliance with current code, and consistence with the School District’s program requirements.  


Another unique aspect of Horace Mann strengthened by the renovation is its unique ensemble relationship with two adjacent historic properties: North Market Square Park (1839) and the Preucil School of Music (1900). The three properties, along with St. Wenceslaus Church (1893) close-by, form an extraordinary historic center for the Northside and Goosetown neighborhoods. As a member of City Council, I worked diligently during Mann’s planning/construction process to maintain the existing character of North Market Square and the surrounding neighborhood context.  

2. Are you familiar with Iowa City's Historic Preservation PlanWhich goals within the plan is the City meeting? Where is the City failing?

 

I initially became familiar with the Historic Preservation Plan while serving on the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) from 2012-2015. P&Z determines whether recommendations from the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) are consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan. 

 

The City is making progress on Goal 1: Identify historic resources significant to Iowa City’s past. Achievements include: 

  • Updating the Downtown Survey (2018) 

  • HPC and P&Z approved historic designation overlays for 7 properties this year, of which 5 have thus far been approved by City Council. 

  • Council also has since approved the designation of two additional historic properties (225 and 229 N. Gilbert) that address some of the concerns raised by the property owners of 319 E. Bloomington, one of the 7 properties for which Council did not approve the historic designation. If re-elected, I will continue to advocate for preserving the overall character of Northside Market Place, where these 3 and other historic properties are located, whether through land use regulation, public right-of-way improvements, and/or historic designation.   

 

Though not at this point a failure, the future of the Sanxay-Gilmore House remains uncertain. If re-elected, I will continue to work toward a mutually satisfactory resolution with the University of Iowa.  

 

3. Many historic properties aren’t currently protected and could be demolished if the owner wishes. What is your approach to making sure buildings important to our community heritage are protected? 

My approach to protecting buildings important to Iowa City’s community heritage includes the following goals, which are already underway and require continuous engagement.

  • Identify and document significant historic resources

  • Identify regulatory measures aimed at protecting historic resources

  • Identify economic measures that incentivize the preservation of historic properties and neighborhoods

  • Provide adequate staffing to assist with historic preservation in a timely manner

  • Expand the Iowa City community’s understanding of the value of historic preservation, e.g., community/neighborhood identity, economic prosperity, tourism 

  • Strengthen relationships between Iowa City, State of Iowa and Federal agencies

  • Coordinate the City’s historical preservation objectives with the University of Iowa’s campus and neighborhood planning

  • Promote heritage tourism in a cooperative effort with the University of Iowa, Historic Preservation Commission, Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Johnson County Historical Society

  • Adopt comprehensive strategies to preserve historic neighborhoods through district adoption, neighborhood stabilization, transportation and land use planning, and nuisance code enforcement 

  • Prepare an annual report to City Council on measurable progress toward achieving these goals

 

4. The State of Iowa and the federal government have multiple programs that provide financial assistance to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings. Despite Iowa City's large stock of historic buildings, we underperform compared to peer cities. If elected to city council, what will you do make sure Iowa City performs better?

 

If re-elected, I will continue to stress the importance of preserving Iowa City’s cultural heritage. While serving on P&Z and City Council, I have consistently supported initiatives advancing historic preservation.   

 

I’m surprised to learn that Iowa City has not been a major recipient of financial assistance at the state and federal level. In addition to the referenced documents, a recent article in The Gazette (“The high cost of preserving history”, Madison Arnold, 8/25/19) reported that Iowa City over the last 5 years has 2 projects receiving tax credits, and 4 projects receiving grant money. Comparatively, Cedar Rapids has 25 tax credit projects/5 grant projects, and Dubuque has 17 tax credit projects/6 grant projects.

 

As a first step, I will ask staff why Iowa City has not performed better in successfully applying for financial assistance, and what measures can be taken to improve the situation. 

 

The Gazette article also mentioned that in Decorah IA, a historic building owner received a five-year tax abatement from the city on a renovation project. I have long felt that the city should consider how to use its taxing authority to help incentivize building renovation projects where needed to help revitalize neighborhoods and commercial districts.    

Megan Alter

Position sought: At-Large Seat (2 open seats; 3 candidates)

1. What is your favorite historic building in Iowa City and why?

 

Old Brick. I was first introduced it in 1995 when I moved here. To make graduate students aware of voting to unionize, COGS hosted a dance—it was funky, fun, and brought relative strangers together so that we felt like a community! The space itself helped forge that synergy; it is a large, yet intimate space if that makes sense. With all the wood and (good) wear in the main room, you get a sense of how much it has been used. To me that example encapsulates the best of Old Brick and what it does for so many people in the community. Since then I’ve been at Old Brick for conferences, award dinners, a wedding reception, and community engagement seminars. To me, Old Brick demonstrates the best of historic preservation: people use it for myriad events and community causes. It is functional, beautiful, and bring people together in the present—thus creating community history while at the same time honoring its past.  

2. Are you familiar with Iowa City's Historic Preservation PlanWhich goals within the plan is the City meeting? Where is the City failing?

I am struck by how well the Neighborhood Stabilization strategies have come to life. Goosetown is a great example of how the neighborhood and historic district, city, and school district worked together to make Mann Elementary a vibrant example of accessible, living history while also attending to how rehabilitation and stabilization work together productively. While it was operating, the UniverCity program attracted homeowners to a high rental area, and the school’s renovation preserved its essential historical contours while providing a needed improvement for the neighborhood. And, rather than move to a new development, families could afford unique homes that did not contribute to suburban sprawl.

It seems the current struggle continues to be downtown: striking a balance between historic designation and protection with the economic desirability of location, location, location. The City should look more at the goal of establishing economic incentives to encourage preservation of historic buildings and neighborhoods. As part of that, and as the Historic Preservation Plan itself notes, Iowa City has underperformed in using the multiple State and Federal programs that provide financial assistance to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings.

 

3. Many historic properties aren’t currently protected and could be demolished if the owner wishes. What is your approach to making sure buildings important to our community heritage are protected? 

To help protect our historic buildings, the approach needs to be multi-pronged by working on several of the HPC’s goals at once. To paraphrase, education to various stakeholders about the value of including historic designations in commercial areas and neighborhoods is key. (Our investment in and promotion of historical buildings is already a significant part Iowa City’s “brand,” so education about historic preservation can be framed as part of that.) Another part of the approach should also include further work on educating property owners about monies available for rehabilitating and maintaining historic buildings. Iowa City, FHP, and HPC can work together to find financial support (and thus public advocacy) from private entities as well as from the State and federal government to create incentives for improvements. With some decisions about keeping or razing buildings being made along the lines of cost effectiveness, if IC can tap into existing money specifically designated for historic preservation, property owners may be more willing to buy into protecting these buildings rather than tear them down. The key is to make the argument and case that best makes sense to the property owner. Then it is a win-win for both. 

 

4. The State of Iowa and the federal government have multiple programs that provide financial assistance to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings. Despite Iowa City's large stock of historic buildings, we underperform compared to peer cities. If elected to city council, what will you do make sure Iowa City performs better?

 

As a Council member, I would rely a good deal on the recommendations of FHP and the HPC, both of which have the expertise and historical understanding of what has been done, what has worked, what hasn’t, and what needs to be done. In reading through the annual report, I will say it looks like Iowa City could strengthen its ability to get more of these grants or stake in the programs by creating a stronger partnership between FHP, City staff, and the University to promote better and more grant writing. Of course, grant writing takes time and resources, but if all three stakeholder groups could get together to think about how to train people (perhaps students—grant writing is an incredibly transferable skill in its own right) to write the grants, at least one part of the equation is there. This could also become another way to recruit and educate community members about historic preservation in Iowa City.   

Laura Bergus

Position sought: At-Large Seat (2 open seats; 3 candidates)

1. What is your favorite historic building in Iowa City and why?

The Englert. In 1995, in high school, Nick Bergus and I went on our first date there. We sat through three hours of Braveheart, in the front row of the half-a-theater movie theater. Years later, I heard about the Save the Englert campaign and was grateful the space would be something other than another bar. I have seen my favorite bands at the Englert since it reopened. When my daughter was young, she enjoyed puppets and dancers on stage. She and I have both had the privilege of performing there, too. I have spent late nights of Mission Creek and Witching Hour in the fog-filled theater, and envisioned the future of other non-profits during fundraising events there. 

 

Through the Strengthen Grow Evolve campaign, I have learned a lot about what is required to maintain this 107-year-old structure, including the challenges of old brick and plaster and aging plumbing and HVAC systems. This building, which has been a catalyst for meaningful moments and memories in my own life, has also helped me understand the value of keeping spaces that bear the historic weight of community stories. To experience the Englert is to feel the importance of Iowa City’s cultural legacy. 

2. Are you familiar with Iowa City's Historic Preservation PlanWhich goals within the plan is the City meeting? Where is the City failing?

I believe Iowa City has done well in identifying historically significant resources. For instance, we completed an update to the historic survey of downtown in 2018 and the architectural survey of the Sabin School and Southside Iowa City Neighborhood in 2015. Also, the creation of the Self-Supporting Municipal Improvement District for downtown and the north side since the adoption of the Historic Preservation Plan has also generated new funds for preservation and restoration in those areas.

 

Two related, but unmet goals are: heightening public awareness of historic preservation in the community and enhancing heritage tourism. The Historic Preservation Commission and Friends of Historic Preservation do a lot of work that remains unsung in the community. Iowa City residents and visitors alike will benefit from knowing more about the benefits of historic preservation and the stories of our town’s past. The current Historic Preservation Plan is about 12 years old. An update to the Historic Preservation Plan is due, and would be an excellent opportunity to raise awareness, gather public feedback, and focus on sites that could host tangible educational opportunities.

 

3. Many historic properties aren’t currently protected and could be demolished if the owner wishes. What is your approach to making sure buildings important to our community heritage are protected? 

I agree with surveying, evaluating, and--where established criteria are met--designating buildings for local landmarking and neighborhoods for historic or conservation districts, providing parameters for preservation that may limit or prevent demolition. However, establishment of these protections is not enough. Effective preservation requires strategic communication between property owners, neighborhoods, and the city to ensure all parties know their rights and responsibilities. The city must also provide structured support for preservation efforts, including active public outreach and education, staff with historic preservation expertise, referrals for local vendors who understand local requirements, and help seeking financial support. The city must also consistently enforce regulations so all parties know what to expect from the process.

 

Iowa City has also has had some success with non-governmental groups organizing to save significant landmarks, most notably Old Brick and the Englert. Such campaigns may be a last resort if other preservation efforts are ineffective, but also can galvanize local philanthropy and create permanent homes for new (or renewed!) public uses, for lasting public benefit.

 

4. The State of Iowa and the federal government have multiple programs that provide financial assistance to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings. Despite Iowa City's large stock of historic buildings, we underperform compared to peer cities. If elected to city council, what will you do make sure Iowa City performs better?

 

First we should determine why we underperform. We should seek to learn from cities that are more successful at using these programs. My hope would be that improved public education and strategic communication would result more Iowa City properties benefiting from these programs. The city should promote these opportunities regularly to property owners. The city should encourage awareness among contractors and vendors for promoting these programs. Continued collaboration and strong partnerships between the city government and groups like Friends of Historic Preservation will also help ensure these opportunities are shared where they can find the best use. Iowa City can also let our partners, like the Iowa City Area Development Group, who help attract professional talent to our community, know that there is a chance to grow the industry of historic preservation program planning and facilitation. The city’s efforts to educate on these topics should emphasize the many benefits of preservation, not just the direct financial benefit of these programs. For instance, the city should include articulation of environmental  and cultural benefits of historic preservation when promoting these programs.   

1. What is your favorite historic building in Iowa City and why?

This is a difficult question to answer. Iowa City is so rich in history, with so many wonderful historical structures. But, if I must single out one as my favorite, it would be the Old Capitol building on the Pentacrest. It stands there looking so strong, with its beautiful stone structure and its shiny gold dome. It has withstood a lot over the years, even a major fire. When I came to the University in 1970, I spent a lot of time on the Pentacrest. Seeing the Old Capitol always brings back fond memories of my college days, 

2. Are you familiar with Iowa City's Historic Preservation PlanWhich goals within the plan is the City meeting? Where is the City failing?

I was not familiar with the actual Preservation Plan. So, I appreciate that you enclosed the link. Each of the goals serves a great purpose in outlining what needs to be done to preserve our city's history.

 

In regards to Goal #1, in conjunction with the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), the City has identified and designated many historic properties throughout the community. The significance of the properties to Iowa City's history is always well documented and interesting to know.


Regarding Goal #8, although there are some events that highlight historical aspects of the City, I believe that there could be more emphasis placed on spotlighting our local history, and make it more appealing to tourists. We need to encourage them to discover the many rich elements of our history. There are so many possibilities that could be done to showcase not only our architectural history, but our political, cultural, social, athletic and healthcare history as well.

 

3. Many historic properties aren’t currently protected and could be demolished if the owner wishes. What is your approach to making sure buildings important to our community heritage are protected? 

Demolition is a very bad option. I am supportive of the City continuing to offer education and financial incentives to property owners to encourage them to accept historic designation. We should inform them about the positive benefits of preservation. 


I will continue to support the HPC recommendations for historic designation of properties, and will strongly encourage my fellow Council members to do the same 


It should be emphasized that the Historic Preservation Plan is an element of the City's Comp Plan. It should be included in any discussions related to potential development on any site with historical significance. 


Developers should be encouraged to repurpose and or incorporate historic elements into their development. 

 

An excellent example of how this can be done is the incorporation of the Unitarian Universalist Society church into the Augusta Place development. So, it is possible. 


I am supportive of the downtown district being designated as a historic district, as a means of preserving its historic character.

 

4. The State of Iowa and the federal government have multiple programs that provide financial assistance to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings. Despite Iowa City's large stock of historic buildings, we underperform compared to peer cities. If elected to city council, what will you do make sure Iowa City performs better?

 

As above, I believe that we need to do a better job of informing property owners about the positive benefits of historic designation. I will continue to support financial incentives for property owners to maintain and/or renovate their building whether it is a home or a business.
 

I will continue to vote in favor of any recommendations made by the HPC for historic designation. And, as above in #3, I will strongly encourage my fellow Council members to do the same.


I will encourage the HPC to continue with the historic preservation awards program. I would like to see more emphasis placed on this program. I believe it can help to raise people's awareness of what can be done to preserve the historical nature and character of existing buildings.   

Pauline Taylor

Position sought: Council District A (one seat; no challengers)

Janice Weiner

Position sought: At-Large Seat (2 open seats; 3 candidates)

1. What is your favorite historic building in Iowa City and why?

Old Capitol. It is living history, an icon, the center of our city and the U of I campus – and it is used and loved. It says to me every day: We care about our history, it is at our very core, and we will fold it into our future.

2. Are you familiar with Iowa City's Historic Preservation PlanWhich goals within the plan is the City meeting? Where is the City failing?

I am the first to admit that I am no expert on historic preservation. This is the beginning of another steep learning curve. That’s also why it is so important that this organization and others like it exist - to advise us, educate us and keep watch so we can maintain the buildings that distinguish this city from some of our neighboring cities.

 

There has been considerable success in raising awareness and preserving buildings and homes with historical significance. Where it bumps up against property rights, education and persuasion usually win out, but not always – we have had a few losses. 

The two instances where we have failed – or not yet succeeded – are the downtown district and the Sanxay-Gilmore House. With respect to the downtown, we have not yet designated it as an historic district, and the remaining area that could be designated has shrunk over the years. If you want to get a sense of what was, walk into MERGE and look at the wall-sized photo in the conference room. This should be remedied – and it will not mean that there cannot be change or development downtown; it will just help preserve what remains. 

 

We have also both succeeded and failed when it comes to working with the University. I remember the battle to save Old Brick. Now we need to save the Sanxay-Gilmore House. It pre-dates the Civil War and deserves landmark status. The plan to move it is expensive – and the original lot designated is itself within an historic district, so cannot be used. Whatever plan is developed, the house must not be torn down, and both city and university should commit to saving it. Finally, the city alone should not bear the cost – the University need to contribute.

3. Many historic properties aren’t currently protected and could be demolished if the owner wishes. What is your approach to making sure buildings important to our community heritage are protected? 

The Historic Preservation Commission needs to continue to work diligently. It has identified many buildings over the years and had many successes. I believe it comes down to education – of both adults and children. We can bring local history alive to our youth when they are learning about it in school. There is nothing more powerful than young people taking up a cause, as we are seeing now when it comes to climate and guns. We can educate in classes at the Center (formerly the Senior Center). We can educate through readings and programs at the library. Through letters to the editor. Public lecture series and series about buildings of interest in the local papers are also effective tools. Fundraisers and concerts can also get the message across.  In a nutshell, my answer is: Keep up the good work, and think out of the box when it comes to education. In the end, we won’t win every battle – but if keep our eye on the overall goal of maintaining the character of our city, that is a battle we will win through education and persuasion. 

4. The State of Iowa and the federal government have multiple programs that provide financial assistance to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings. Despite Iowa City's large stock of historic buildings, we underperform compared to peer cities. If elected to city council, what will you do make sure Iowa City performs better?

 

Applying for programs and grants is time and labor intensive. It requires expertise. Staffing for historic preservation is limited at City Hall. Partnering with the University’s school of architecture would help and could be a valuable resource. Knowledgeable volunteers could help. We can also learn best practices from other cities. In the end, it comes down to more staff hours. I would work within the budget process to provide at least another part time position that could provide a “surge” to develop templates and build relationships at the state and federal level, creating a roadmap for others to follow.  

© 2019  Friends of Historic Preservation

Mailing Address

PO Box 2001

Iowa City, IA 52244

Salvage Barn

2401 Scott Blvd

Iowa City, IA

(319) 351-1875

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