The Iowa City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission have rejected plans to develop land owned by ACT near Hickory Hill Park again, and again, and again, since 2013.
That changed Tuesday when the council finally and unanimously approved a rezoning proposal that paves the way for a 120-unit senior living facility and donates 38 acres to the park.
What made the difference this time was the five councilors who changed their vote, and the park-goers and supporters of Hickory Hill Park who voiced their support for this plan in contrast to previous meetings where many spoke against development.
At the Iowa City Council’s Nov. 30 meeting, Jason Napoli, the vice chair of the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, said this is a design that his organization supports due to the parkland that is being given to the city, but the support is contingent on the land being used for Hickory Hill Park.
“We do appreciate the developer’s ecological and community-mindedness of the proposal and also the need of assisted living and memory care in the local area,” he said. “It’s been very clear from Planning and Zoning as well as council for the previous proposal that it is needed.”
Napoli said the acreage being added to the park is an incredible opportunity and is a great responsibility that he hopes the city will partner with the Friends of Hickory Hill Park on, just like the group does with the other 185 acres of the current park.
“This includes maintaining the trail system, advancing native prairie restoration as well as working tirelessly on invasive species removal,” he said.
Councilor Pauline Taylor said at that meeting that approving a plan for this land has been a long process but she was glad to see so much community involvement. Taylor said she would support the project, reversing her previous opposition to the plan.
“It is reassuring to hear from the Friends of Hickory Hill Park that they do support this version,” Taylor said, adding she hopes the developers consider sustainability due to the building’s carbon footprint.
Councilor Susan Mims said she was disappointed that the last proposal didn’t pass and that they lost an opportunity for more housing in the city.
She also expressed concern that members of the public who were opposed to previous plans were being “fed misinformation” about the plan developing Hickory Hill park, despite previous versions adding up to 14 acres to the park.
“When you take this and you take the lack of annexing Carson Farm and you try and talk about affordable housing … we don’t have a lot of land left to develop in this city and we need to continue to grow,” she said.
In this iteration of the development, Nelson Construction dropped the proposed street of 41 single-family homes that was present in previous proposals, leaving only the senior living facility.
The Planning and Zoning Commission sent the proposal to City Council a month ago after unanimously approving its latest iteration proposed by Nelson Construction and Development.
During the meeting, Andrew Alden with AG Architecture and Nick Bettis with Axiom Consultants showcased a video showing how the building would theoretically look from the park and Scott Boulevard. The Press-Citizen later requested and obtained a copy of the video.
The video appeared to show that from the trail-level and on Scott Boulevard, the building would not be visible because of its location and trees blocking the view.
In a statement sent to the Press-Citizen on Friday, Alden, Nelson Construction and Development said it is excited to bring assisted living and memory care services to Iowa City once the project gets final approval.
“In an act of good stewardship and out of a desire to be good neighbors to Hickory Hill Park and the Iowa City community, Nelson is donating the remaining approximately 39 acres to be preserved forever as part of Hickory Hill Park,” the statement said.
Another adjustment that was made was increasing the height of the building from 40 to 42 feet to account for space needed between floors for air ducts for higher airflows and filtration systems. These changes were made to account for best practices learned for senior living facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alden and Bettis said if everything goes according to plan and barring any delays, construction could finish by 2025.
Councilor John Thomas, who is a board member of the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, said this process helped him learn how much the community cares about the park.
“It is an extremely important element in the community that has been dramatically strengthened by this project,” he said.
George Shillcock is the Press-Citizen’s local government and development reporter covering Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at GShillcock@press-citizen.com and on Twitter @ShillcockGeorge