Editorial: River project demonstrates area's energy

Iowa City Press-Citizen

Monday, May 24, 2004

The energy that drives our metro area's growth became evident last week. On Thursday, Coralville officials tied together several previously announced projects as the "Iowa River Landing Development," which beginning this summer will transform the city's shoreline from Interstate 80 south.

The issue

Construction of the Iowa River Landing Development begins this summer.

We suggest

If successful, the project will transform not only the waterfront but the metro area.

If successful, the development will draw hundreds of thousands of visitors, tens of millions of dollars and more than a couple of thousand new jobs into the metro area's economy. That in turn will bring more businesses to the region as they attempt to tap into those dollars and the arising opportunities.

Coralville's Iowa River Landing Development consists of 150 acres stretching from I-80 to the Iowa River Power Co. restaurant, bounded by First Avenue on one side and the river on the other. Its main components include:

Marriott Hotel and Conference Center - The nine-story tower will include meeting and exhibition space, a restaurant and 300-plus rooms.

Iowa Environmental/Education Project - Designed by a former Harvard art teacher, the facility largely will use alternative energies to grow an indoor rain forest and will feature a reconstructed wetland and prairie on what formerly was a brownfield.

Coralville Intermodal Facility - Featuring a gazebo, the center will celebrate the history of Coralville and the Iowa River.

Open space - A full third of the redevelopment will be open space with public trails and parks. One of the trails will bridge the river, connecting to Iowa City's system.

Construction centering on utilities and roads begins this summer. The Iowa Environmental/ Education Project will hold a symbolic groundbreaking in autumn. If completed by the projected date of Earth Day 2008 - when the Iowa Environmental/Education Project hopes to open - the entire riverfront, the nearby I-80 ramps and First Avenue will look quite different than today.

There has been much criticism of each component in the development plan, ranging from the tax structures supporting the new conference center to the ethical implications of creating an indoor rain forest. And there remain a number of questions, many of them about basic finances, regarding the Iowa Environmental/Education Project.

While many questions have been asked about what happens if the components fail, the community also might want to ask what will happen if they succeed. Will other attractions - a casino quickly comes to mind - soon be proposed for the area?

In any case, that Coralville is taking on such a project is remarkable. A riverfront redevelopment of this scale usually is done only in much larger cities. In Iowa, Dubuque has and now Des Moines is making such an effort. Other communities have not been so visionary - Cedar Rapids' voters recently nixed a waterfront redevelopment plan there and Sioux City is grappling with how to fill its downtown, where nearly 70 percent of floor space sits vacant. Should Coralville's river develop-ment be as successful as its proponents predict, not only that city but much of the metro area will be transformed. We'll no longer be a fly-over or drive-by region but a destination for a nation.