After deal with mobile home tenants, Iowa City Council advances Forest View

THE GAZETTE — Margarita Rodriguez is one step closer to getting the washer and dryer she wants.

A 29-year resident of the Forest View Mobile Home Court tucked away in a wooded area off Dubuque Street, Rodriguez has spent close to three decades carrying her laundry to the neighborhood laundromat. Soon, however, she and many of her neighbors will be relocated to a new manufactured housing development where residents can say goodbye to their trailers — some of which are in disrepair — and hello to new homes that come with the opportunity to rent to own. And yes, they’ll have washer and dryer hookups, Rodriguez said.

“I’m very excited that it’s going to happen,” said Rodriguez, 69.

The Iowa City Council on Tuesday evening unanimously approved the first consideration of rezoning 73 acres near Dubuque Street and Interstate 80 for a project including a mix of housing and commercial space that would displace the trailer park. Council members offered praise for the $200 million project in which the land owners, developers and residents come together to reach an agreement.

“The reason why I love this project so much is I think it represents growth with dignity,” council member Rockne Cole said. “I think what this does is set a precedent. We’re not going to develop to displace or have some people win and some people lose.”

The new Forest View development — which will have 57 single-family homes, more than 280 multi-residential units, a senior housing community, two hotel pads, 30,000 square feet of commercial space and 60,000 square feet of office space — has been three years in the making.

Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton recalled initial discussions about it were contentious.

“It was a really hostile meeting,” Throgmorton said Tuesday evening. “It’s pleasing to be in a situation where the hostility has evaporated for good reasons.”

Rafael Moratoya, executive director of the Center For Worker Justice, helped residents of Forest View organize into a tenant association. He said the developers met with the residents monthly to walk them through the development process. Moratoya applauded that collaboration and said residents are eager to begin.

“The residents have been waiting for a new home for three years,” he said.

The land is owned by North Dubuque LLC and the project is managed by Blackbird Investments, based in Des Moines. Tuesday’s unanimous vote was made possible because of Blackbird Investments’ changes to the plans for the site.

Anne Russett, senior planner with the city, said the developer agreed to remove a proposed gas station from the project, use dark-sky compliant lighting, install 24 electric car charging stations and include up to four bus stops. The lot where the gas station had been intended will be dedicated to the city as public open space, Russett said.

To make room for the development, the mobile home park residents will be moved to a manufactured housing development that is to be built west of the current neighborhood.

“We expect all of those manufactured lots will be filled with those existing tenants,” said City Manager Geoff Fruin.

Tenants of the manufactured homes initially will pay the same rent as now. They have agreed to a 2 percent annual increase for 15 years and will have a rent-to-own option with their individual properties.

“It’s intended to be a very predictable transition for those residents,” Fruin said. “They’ll be able to know going into it that they can afford the rental of the new units and the rental increases and ultimately have that option to move to an ownership status in the future.”

Added Fruin, “We want to make sure all of the existing residents have the option to stay in the area. It’s very much a community … The developer has worked very hard to work with those residents to make sure that everybody who wants to stay has an option. Not only an option but an affordable one that’s sustainable long-term.”

For the city, the project also represents a valuable flood mitigation project. During the 2008 flood, Foster Road flooded and prevented residents — including those in the Peninsula neighborhood — from reaching their homes. The new Forest View development will create a second access to the Peninsula neighborhood.

“Having a secondary access point is really critical so we can provide public safety services in the event we have a large-scale flood,” Fruin said. “This allows them to stay in their homes and allows us to get police, fire and emergency medical service vehicles back to those residences if we do lose Foster Road in a future flood.”

Despite the deal making and compromises, not everyone has been in favor of the project.

Neighbors and others have expressed concerns over the development creating more traffic and being detrimental to the look and feel of the area, which serves as a gateway off the interstate to Iowa City. Residents near the new manufactured housing neighborhood also said they were concerned about the aesthetics of those homes.

“I feel that this project could really have been an example of how you can bring affordable housing into any kind of development,” said Katherine Nixon. “Unfortunately, based on the plans we have seen, it’s going to look like a trailer home park. I know it’s not, but it’s going to look like that.”

The development will be done in phases and will take several years to complete. Construction could begin in early 2020.

“It’s our shared goal with the residents of Forest View to commence construction as soon as possible,” said Jimmy Becker, project manager with Blackbird Investments.

The rezoning will require two more votes from the City Council to become final.