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Discussion on University Heights Development Resumes

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UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Iowa - The fiercely debated Melrose Ave. development project that divided the University Heights community several years ago has resurfaced following a series of new proposals by the developer.

Plans for One University Place, 1300 Melrose Ave., to be a mix of residential and commercial development stalled in 2011 after vocal opposition from residents and a city council unwilling to support the project with tax increment financing.

Developer Jeff Maxwell released two additional proposals, along with his original plan, for the 5.3 acres of land where St. Andrew Presbyterian Church currently stands. The church has agreed allow Maxwell to purchase the land for $4.3 million, which the city council rezoned for development in 2010.

Maxwell said the residential-only designs are alternatives for those concerned about commercial space.

One scenario includes two residential buildings, a four-story building in the rear of the property and a two-story building along Melrose Ave.
Another scenario includes a five-story residential building in the rear with open space for a city park along the street.

Commercial Use

The final scenario is Maxwell's original reported $44.9 million plan and includes a five-story residential building in the rear and a three-story mixed-use building along Melrose, which Maxwell still favors. But he can only afford it with TIF funding, he said.

"That was our original intention and is still the best design," Maxwell said. "It has always been the best design."

In 2011, critics of the plan said the development did not jive with the town's character, while supporters argue it's an opportunity to expand the tax base in a town of 1,000 residents and mostly single-family homes.

City Councilors, who attended a Sept. 18 public meeting where Maxwell presented the additional designs, said they believe an agreement can be reached.

City Councilor Jim Lane, who favored the mixed-use plan, said though no clear consensus was reached at the meeting, there was a little more support for the mixed-use plan.

"I think the three options are reasonable options and I think somewhere in between those three we'll end up with a pretty good plan for this development," Lane said. He said the church's vote in 2012 to rebuild on Camp Cardinal Road also helped ease some concerns.

However, Lane and fellow councilor Rosanne Hopson, remain hesitant about TIF funding. Hopson, said she's not opposed to commercial use, such as office space, but doesn't agree with Maxwell's original plans.

"It's just a bad use of TIF," Hopson said. "It would ultimately be funding the developer's purchase of the property and I can't support that."

Maxwell said with the upcoming city election this November, he's confident things will move forward.

"We have an election coming up in November and I certainly don't know what will happen during that timeframe," Maxwell said. "There may be some change, there may not."

Debate on the development in 2011 became a main issue throughout the city election, which might happen again. The entire council and mayor are running for re-election this year, including challengers Virginia Miller, Zadok Nampala, Silvia Quezada and Rachel Stewart.

Miller, Quezada and Nampala all said they view development of commercial space as a great opportunity for the town. Stewart could not be reached for comment but opposed Maxwell's plans when she ran in 2011.

"If council chooses to not continue in negotiations on a PUD [planned unit development] with Maxwell, I think it is probable that the University will buy the property, at which point we will lose all control and income," Miller said in an email.

Residents can still provide comment on the new designs online until Oct. 1, where the input will be shared with city councilors. Maxwell said he anticipates submitting a development proposal to the city council by the end of the year.

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