The cottage conundrum: save or raze the South Dubuque Street cottages?

I need to start writing posts again. Real posts — not just beer reviews and basketball scores. I need to start writing in general, and writing more blog posts of substance should prove to be a small and productive step in the right direction. Bobblehead recently posted his thoughts regarding the ongoing saga of three (now two) 19th century cottages on South Dubuque Street in Iowa City and I thought adding my two cents worth would be a good place to start, especially since I am not sure what to think.

Despite the historical significance of three cottages along South Dubuque Street, their owner wants to demolish them to make way for apartment complexes. Historic preservationists are up in arms and the fate of the cottages has been a local controversy for a couple months.

According to the Friends of Historic Preservation website, the cottages “are some of the last remaining workers cottages in Iowa City, as well as some of the last remaining historic structures in Iowa City’s former railroad district.” An original rezoning application was withdrawn in November, but the cottages’ owner evicted a couple tenants, secured demolition permits, and demolished the southernmost cottage in the middle of the night last month. (I think it happened Christmas night.) The fate of the two remaining cottages is up in the air for now. The City Council is weighing landmark designation, the tenant at the northernmost cottage is in court today fighting to stay until the end of his lease (which is probably July 31), and the cottages’ owner will be in court sometime next month regarding municipal infractions for maintaining structurally unsound buildings. It has become a proxy battle between proponents of historic preservation and those advocating for the rights of the property owner.

In a nutshell, it is a huge mess and I am not sure where I stand on the issue. On one hand I am a nostalgic man who relishes history. I recently spent a whole afternoon browsing the public library’s digital archive of photos from downtown Iowa City’s urban renewal in the 1970s. (It is fascinating stuff. As someone who has always lived in an Iowa City with the ped mall, Holiday Inn/Sheraton, and “Old Capitol Mall,” the old downtown is almost unrecognizable.) On the other hand, I recognize the need for more housing, especially affordable housing, downtown. Efforts to save outdated and supposedly unsafe workers’ housing from the 19th century seems antithetical to efforts addressing the need for workforce housing in the 21st century.

CRG columnist Lynda Waddington wrote a thoughtful column for the Sunday paper. She wrote that not only do the cottages “represent a segment of the population and a moment in time unique to Eastern Iowa and of which too little already remains,” the middle cottage was home to Jim’s Used Books and Records, which served as a meeting and performance location for the Actualist Poetry Movement. APM began in Iowa City in 1972 and, according to Waddington’s column, is the only such movement to originate in Iowa City. The middle cottage is apparently the only remaining IC location where the APM met. Given the fact that Iowa City prides itself as a writing center and UNESCO City of Literature, it seems to behoove the city to preserve what it can of the APM.

As a hater of all things poetry, I was not necessarily moved by Waddington’s plea to preserve the last remaining local meeting place for a poetry movement I had never heard of or really care about, but I understand the significance and her point. (It seems ironic for the “City of Literature” to allow a supposed literary landmark to be demolished.) To me, the cottages’ connection with the movement is only added sweetener. Their charm and history as workers’ housing in the old railroad district is what I value most. They are friendly and attractive historic oddities in a hodgepodge and somewhat unsightly neighborhood.

Waddington’s column contained a catch, though:

But, even with official historic landmark status, which was pursued without the cooperation of the property owner, it is likely the buildings will not survive. Such a designation indicates what is worthy of protection and preservation, but has few teeth to ensure it.

Owners of private property listed in the National Register have no obligation to open their properties to the public, to restore them, or even to maintain them, if they choose not to do so. Owners can do anything they wish with their property provided that no federal license, permit or funding is involved.

Waddington wrote that owners of historic properties slated for demolition may only need to “minimize the loss to the larger community,” as the University of Iowa did when “photographers and videographers captured as much as possible to at least partially preserve the 40-year history of Hancher” before the flood-damaged auditorium was demolished. However, the online version of her column contains text added following reader feedback:

If the remaining two cottages are given a local landmark designation, however, their future is more optimistic. Each city can develop its own local landmark rules, and those in Iowa City are more strict than national considerations.

When an Iowa City property is made a local historic landmark, any changes, including demolition, have to be reviewed by the local Historic Preservation Commission, which follows the City of Iowa City’s Historic Preservation Plan.

While this review does not permanently protect the cottages from demolition, it does add another layer of protection. Further, a look at the Historic Preservation Committee’s previous reviews shows that the bar for granting demolition has been set fairly high.

So there’s a chance the two remaining cottages can be saved. But if the cottages are declared historic landmarks, and the remaining tenant can stay until the end of his lease, what incentive does the owner have to maintain them since he obviously has other plans for the land? He could, I assume, let them fall into disrepair to guarantee their demolition. (One of the competing structural reviews already found that the buildings are unsafe, which is why the owner is facing municipal infractions for “maintaining” structurally unsound buildings. The fine for that is an outrageously low $250. No wonder some of the housing downtown is so dilapidated — there is no incentive for maintenance. That is, perhaps, one of the surprising and overlooked side stories to this whole saga — that the city doesn’t really care if property owners rent out structurally unsound buildings.) That’s his right as the property owner. He can do whatever the hell he wants with them. Right?

That’s where this gets complicated for me. The cottages are his property and I am a little queasy with the city stepping in to tell him what he can and cannot do. It is a queasiness he is playing to his advantage as he has garnered his own support from the community, especially those who believe his rights as the property owner should be paramount.

Though the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously recommended preservation, I bet the council is mostly annoyed by the whole thing and views the cottages saga as a speed bump on the path to redevelopment. The city has big plans for that neighborhood, the Riverfront Crossings District; it will become a veritable SoDo that will be a little more residential than the current downtown core. But despite all the redevelopment that will take place, the city’s long-term plan for the district also included historic preservation, specifically identifying, I think, the cottages — an ironic fact many preservationists have pounced on. Sadly, that aspect of the plan seems to have been conveniently overlooked recently.

The city and many Iowa Citians like myself want more, better, and ideally affordable housing downtown. The current housing in the downtown area consists mostly of overpriced and poorly maintained apartments for college students (who perhaps don’t deserve anything better), former single-family homes that have been poorly maintained and partitioned into apartments (mostly for college students), and luxury suites in glass towers. There are now more “luxury” options for wealthy students, but there is almost no workforce housing, no affordable middle ground for middle class families and people like me — a single thirtysomething who does not want to buy a house, does not want to live next to business majors who do not schedule morning classes, and wants to stay close to the amenities downtown. Workforce housing has been included in numerous development proposals, but it is either not much or would probably be too expensive for anyone who considers themselves a worker in the classic sense. Will the apartment complexes slated for the cottages site include some kind of affordable housing? I have no clue. But preserving aging cottages, built for workers in the 19th century, does not seem to do us much good when we want and need more housing in the 21st century. Do we want museums or housing?

The monstrosity that was built on Washington Street, across from the Co-op and Fired Up Iowa City, just popped into my mind. It replaced what looked like old single-family homes that housed the Red Avocado, Defunct Books, a bed and breakfast, and what I think was a massage studio or health center. That block was pleasant and I fondly remember walking it during college. But now, with the massive and very out-of-place apartment building, it’s ugly. That is not what I want to happen to the cottages’ site if they are eventually torn down.

That leaves me between a rock and a hard place. Aesthetically and historically, I like the cottages. However, if they are structurally unsound and cannot be saved, they should be razed to make way for some much needed affordable housing downtown — ideally something that fits the neighborhood.

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