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University Heights Congregation Votes to Sell Church Property

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IOWA CITY, Iowa - The congregation of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church voted in favor of a resolution to sell the church property at 1300 Melrose Ave. to a developer who desires to turn the property into a condominium project on Sunday.

Of the 367 ballots cast following the Sunday service, 240 people voted in favor of the resolution with 126 opposing and 1 person abstaining from the vote, which followed a brief debate session.

During the debate, members of the University Heights congregation who opposed the resolution cited concerns related to safety, funding, convenience, and the necessity of building a new church. Those who spoke said they were concerned that those with limited transportation wouldn't have as much access to what would be the church's new location on Camp Cardinal Road. Opponents also raised concerns about the price of building a new church, and whether the secluded wooded area where the new church would be built would be safe.

Proponents said that, though they had grown an attachment to the church's Melrose Ave. location, they felt that it was time to build a new church to accommodate the growing congregation and alleviate parking problems. Those in favor of selling the property also said the new church would be within the church's budget, adding they needed to do what would be best for the church's future members.

"The church isn't the building," said one proponent. "The church is the people in this building."

Rev. Matt Paul of St. Andrew said he was pleased with how the morning's debate and vote went.

"I thought the tone was respectful and I know it's been a tough time for the congregation," Paul said. "I've only been here for a year and a half but they have grappled with this for four years and that's a long time to be in the holding pattern, if will, so I was pleased with the way everyone conducted themselves and I look forward to talking to the elders and finding out what their thoughts were as well."

Paul said the vote will still need to be approved by the Presbytery of East Iowa. If the vote is approved, the 5.3 acre property will be sold to developer Jeff Maxwell, who has offered to buy it for $4.3 million. Maxwell plans to use the property to build a $44.9 project, called One University Place, with 69 condominiums and two buildings of commercial space.

But even with approval from the church, Maxwell will still need to gain the support of the University Heights City Council. Though the five-person council previously supported the project 3-2 before last year's election, three members now oppose Maxwell's project.

City Council member Rosanne Hopson said she's philosophically opposed to the project, as Maxwell had previously asked the council for TIF money to help fund it.

"This is a private development for a private gain and I'm just philosophically opposed to all of that," Hopson said. "This is just one person's money-making venture at the expense of our community."

"It's not like what you give when you think of TIF you think of some place where it's a blighted area or developmentally run down and you really want to encourage someone to spruce this area up because no one else in their right might would buy it," Hopson added. "But this is a prime property. You wouldn't have to encourage anyone to buy that so we shouldn't have to give any tax incentives for this area either."

Maxwell did not immediately respond to a phone message Sunday, but he previously told the Gazette he would be willing to work with the city council to allow for the project.

Hopson said the city council has not yet approved anything for the project, and Maxwell has not yet contacted the council regarding any tentative agenda items related to the development.

The Gazette's Gregg Hennigan contributed to this report.

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