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Rain Forest Project in Danger
Environmental Project Leaders Hire New Architect

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

September 1, 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 -- A proposed $180 million rain forest project is in danger of extinction in Coralville.

Leaders of The Environmental Project announced Wednesday the hiring of London-based Grimshaw Architects, which was not the city's expressed preference, to design the enclosed 4.5-acre rain forest planned for about 20 acres southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue.

The project has been controversial, with leaders saying it will bring 500 construction and 200 permanent jobs, attract 1.1 million to 1.5 million visitors annually and add $187 million to the state every year. But critics have said project leadership has been lacking and question where the final funding from the project will come from.

The selection of an architect led city councilor John Lundell to say Wednesday he will form a majority with councilors Tom Gill and Jean Schnake in removing city support from the project. He said he would not favor transferring city-owned land to the project unless two conditions are met.

"I just think this is one in a long list of issues where they've been unresponsive to our concerns and our suggestions," Lundell said of the selection of Grimshaw. "So I've lost confidence in the leaders of this project to successfully complete this project."Lundell's first demand was that project leaders respond to a draft land transfer contract by the city-set Sept. 20 deadline. The draft agreement would hold project leaders to basic specifications of the project, fund-raising and timeline requirements and stipulations on a $50 million Department of Energy grant.

Environmental Project executive director David Oman said the group was committed to meeting the Sept. 20 deadline so the land could transfer and has met twice with city leaders.

"The project board and the city are clearly interested in resolving issues over the transfer of land," he said. "That's the field of play. It's time to move on it, and we will."

Lundell's second condition was the complete removal and replacement of the project's decision-making leadership. Lundell said that while he thought the original project would be good for Coralville, the present management had proven incapable of moving it forward.

Oman said it would be premature to comment on Lundell's second condition until he heard something from Coralville officials.

But City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said if Lundell forms the third member of a majority, it would be the death of the project in Coralville.

"It's a sad situation," Hayworth said. "I think the project and the concept has been very good. It was a very difficult and far-reaching project to begin with, and I think people's frustrations are coming out now."

Gill said he was pleased to see Lundell take the stance. Gill has called for an end to city support since November.

"I made my decision not to transfer the land, and I'm going to stick with it," he said.

And Schnake said the choice of a new architect would in no way change her stance.

"To me it's just more spin. It's more nothing," Schnake said. "So they've got an architect. They had an architect. They had a program that was supposed to be outstanding.

"How many times can we start over?"

Project leaders dropped Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole of Boston in June after project architect Peter Sollogub left the company to return to his previous firm, Cambridge Seven Associates in Cambridge, Mass. A letter from Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett sent to the project board members expressed the city's desire to retain Sollogub.

But instead the board voted 19-0 to choose Grimshaw, with director Andrew Whalley heading up the design team.

Oman said Whalley's work on projects such as the Eden Project in Cornwall, England -- a primary inspiration for The Environmental Project -- helped to set Grimshaw apart from the other six firms that had expressed interest.

"If you want to build a world-class project, you need a world-class team," Oman said. "And we're assembling that team."

Hayworth said that Grimshaw was not a bad choice, just that Sollogub, who also is working on a nearby intermodal transportation center for the city, was preferred. Hayworth said Sollogub has plenty of experience with buildings similar to the Environmental Project proposal.

Project leaders met with Hayworth and Fausett on Wednesday morning to explain the decision, Oman said, asking them to communicate the decision to councilors.

"Obviously I was disappointed with their decision," Hayworth said. "There was no question that the city representatives who were involved felt strongly that the existing architectural firm of architect Peter Sollogub was an important face and leader to the project, and I think it's a huge loss to the project."

Oman said the decision of architect should help to rally public support as well as encourage grant funding.

The $180 million project has been at about the halfway mark on funding since a $50 million Department of Energy grant in January 2004. Oman indicated for the first time Wednesday that the board has considered taking on debt for part of the funding to get the project started and avoid rising construction costs.

"I don't know if we're going to need to take on some debt or not," Oman said. "The board would prefer that we not."

Schnake said that would be a breaking earlier promises from project leaders.

"The commitment all along was that not a shovel would be turned until it was fully funded," she said.

While he said it's too early to tell, Whalley also indicated that the design of the project could change. Whalley said Grimshaw's design of the rain forest is going to grow out of considerations of how people should best experience the rain forest, and that could affect the ultimate look of the project. Whatever the final design, Whalley said it was important for these type of projects to be eye-catching.

"It's not just kind of a nice thing to do," he said. "It's necessary for them to survive."

Fausett said it wouldn't have to be the caterpillar-shaped structure that was proposed, as long as it visually was attracting and met minimum size restrictions.

"We have to be involved in whatever changes are made," he said.

As for Lundell, he said even if the rain forest doesn't become a reality in Coralville, he was sure the city could find a great use for the land.

"This is not the end of the road at all, this is just a change in the path," he said. "I'm still very excited that with a little bit of creativity, we will be able to put together a very exciting project down there."