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City Sets Deadline for Rain Forest
Leaders Must Respond to Draft Land Transfer Agreement by Sept. 20

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 25, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

CORALVILLE -- Mark the calendar. For those following a planned $180 million enclosed rain forest, Sept. 20 will be a date to make or break the project.

During a work session late Tuesday night, city councilors set a four-week deadline for leaders of The Environmental Project to respond to a draft land transfer agreement.

"The council didn't want it to just hang out there forever," city administrator Kelly Hayworth said of the deadline.

The agreement would make the transfer of more than 20 acres of city-owned land southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue contingent on a number of requirements. These include holding project leaders to the basic specifications of a 4.5-acre enclosed rain forest, a 1 million gallon aquarium and an outdoor performance venue, among others.

It also would set timeline and fund-raising requirements, with all funds and contracts in place six months after the land is transferred. In addition, it would tie strings to a $50 million Department of Energy grant, preventing the project from using the money in a location other than Coralville.

For project leaders, meeting the Sept. 20 deadline to return with comments and concerns on the agreement or an alternate proposal will be critical. On Wednesday, councilor John Lundell said if the deadline was not met, he would join councilors Tom Gill and Jean Schnake in calling for a different use for the land -- making a majority of the City Council willing to break with the project.

"We just need to send a message, and this is a strong message that we need to move it along," Lundell said.

But Environmental Project executive director David Oman said the idea of the project missing the Sept. 20 deadline would remain a hypothetical situation. He said it was in the best interest of the city and project leaders to move quickly.

"Our intent is to work on it, take the time to do it well, obviously, but to do it with dispatch," Oman said.

As for the disillusionment of Gill and Schnake, Oman said he thought opinions could change after the land transfer is finalized.

"People's opinions have moved up and down on the project over time," Oman said. "That's to be expected."

And city councilor Henry Herwig said it was prudent to see how the transfer agreement turns out before even considering a stance similar to Gill or Schnake.

"I don't want to make a decision and then have the information come in afterwards," he said.

After the land transfer contract is finalized, a smaller issue still may exist with the selection of a project architect.

Project leaders ended their contract with Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole of Boston in June after Peter Sollogub left the company to return to his previous firm, Cambridge Seven Associates in Cambridge, Mass.

Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett sent a letter to the project board of directors Tuesday afternoon expressing a city preference to follow Sollogub, who also is working on a transportation center in the Iowa River Landing. In the letter, Fausett said Sollogub would be able to create a unified look and that his firm has experience with work similar to The Environmental Project.

However, Fausett's letter indicates that project leaders are leaning toward Grimshaw Architects of London.

Oman said the board was working on the decision of architect and soon would make a choice, taking Fausett's letter into consideration.

"I believe at the end of the day, they'll respect what our board does," Oman said.

However, he declined to say which architect is the front-runner at this point.

"It's the board's decision to make, so I'm not going to get into the pluses or minuses of various firms," he said.