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Rain Forest Ouster Urged;
Coralville Council’s Key Vote Hinges on Leadership Change

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

September 1, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

    CORALVILLE — A proposed indoor rain forest here went on the endangered list Wednesday, even as project operators announced a new architect who they said would create a world-class environmental attraction.

    The damper dropped when a key City Council member said he would not support the high-profile, $180 million rain forest in Coralville without a change in project leadership within three weeks.

    Council member John Lundell’s statement means three of the city’s five council members would oppose the project, which has counted on city aid worth up to $40 million. That aid includes transferring 22 acres the city owns to the rain forest.

    ‘‘I’ve now lost complete confidence in The Environmental Project’s ability to complete the project,’’ Lundell told The Gazette.

    Lundell was upset by the selection of London-based Grimshaw Architects of London, the firm The Environmental Project officials announced Wednesday as their choice to design a high-grade facility and build donor confidence for the rain forest.

    Lundell said the selection showed a lack of appreciation for the city’s contributions to the project. He declined to say who should step down.

    The Environmental Project Executive Director David Oman said he had not spoken with Lundell or anyone on council and that it would be premature to comment.

    Oman said changing architects would not alter plans to open in 2009.

    Andrew Whalley, head of Grimshaw’s New York office, will redesign what once was to be a 20-story, five-acre indoor rain forest.

    ‘‘I see it as a giant jump ahead,’’ said former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, The Environmental Project board chairman. ‘‘We’re on the move with real credibility.’’

    Whalley, 43, comes with experience in projects like this. He helped design the world famous Eden Project in Cornwall, England.

    But Coralville city leaders wanted Peter Sollogub, who had done most of the rain forest’s design work to date before leaving the Chermayeff, Sollogub & Poole Inc. firm. The rain forest terminated its contract with the firm when Sollogub left.

    Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth acknowledged Wednesday that working with The Environmental Project leadership has been difficult at times.

    ‘‘I think there are so many emotions involved in this. I don’t know if anybody can look at it objectively any more,’’ Hayworth said.

    The council must decide whether proceeding means looking at other anchors for the Iowa River Landing District, where the rain forest is proposed south of Interstate 80 near the Iowa River, or finding another way to build the rain forest, he said.

    Coralville is building a $58.3 million Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in the district, and planned on the rain forest as a prime draw.

    Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett said he still wants the project built. ‘‘It’s good for the community, this project needs to happen’’ he said. ‘‘The city may not get everything it wants.’’

    Council member Henry Herwig said, ‘‘Our better moments have come when we are all willing to listen to the information and craft a solution.’’

    Gill and Schnake say a change in project leadership is unlikely and the city must make other plans for the land. ‘‘Unless for some reason there is a life-changing, white flash in the face-type event, we have pretty much been told mind your own business, this is our own project,’’ Schnake said.