Unless it’s a train station, housing is a better use for public land than a lawn

To fix such a patch in your lawn, put on some good garden soil and then spread grass seed over it. (Veronica Lorson Fowler)

Commenting on the recent purchase of land for a potential passenger station, Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin was also aware of the very real possibility that plans for a route to Chicago could fall apart again, as I wrote earlier this month. He was quoted in it The Daily Iowan say so much:

“It continues to give the city the opportunity, independently of the Amtrak route, to expand Oak Grove Park in some linear fashion along the rail line should that become a priority in the future.”

If the city plans to invest significantly in Oak Grove Park, it should take this opportunity to commemorate the history of the area. Proximity to the railroad meant the area was one of the first places in Iowa for Hispanic Americans and their families (Mexican workers at the time) who worked for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad in the 1910s and ’20s settled down in the city. Living in spartanly converted boxcars, this ‘barrio’s’ existence was always precarious and was eventually dismantled when the railroad destroyed the boxcars due to aesthetic complaints from local residents. It has been a goal of the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission since at least the summer of 2020 to further investigate and commemorate this lost community in Oak Grove Park, and any significant work by the city on the park should reflect those commission goals.

However, I also agree that expanding Oak Grove Park would be a bad use of the land. The park is little used in its current state and any expansion would mean the loss of housing that currently sits on recently acquired, now public land. If the Amtrak route fails again or a different location is used for the station and the city attempts to rebuild the land, a better use of space for the city would be bBuild on this land – Housing.

The area is still suitable land for living in a relatively central location in the city, and public ownership of the land would give the city government full control over the development conditions – the style and design of the building, how high the rents are set should at, affordability and more. The city’s previous attempts to regulate private development decisions on private land — through lengthy negotiations with developers, design reviews, rezoning, allocation of minimum percentages of affordable units, height bonuses, and more — have often hindered the construction of much-needed housing for the city. Apparently, public development by the city on public land would circumvent all of these hurdles of the past, as the city would be able to construct housing in accordance with its own social and design goals, thus facilitating the construction of a much-needed housing supply should be faster than before.

On a large scale, public rental housing development can even be fiscally self-sustaining, with rental income covering construction costs. Since no public developer is “necessary” to generate profits on top of that, apartments that are built on a public basis can be rented out below market prices to cover costs. Furthermore, these more affordable rents in public units can force private landlords to stabilize their own rents when there are enough affordable public units competing with the private market – after all, why would anyone rent a subpar room in a 40-year-old private apartment? if more reliable social housing could be sought?

Much of this, of course, cannot be done with just a small piece of public land. In fact, in Vienna, one of the most cited examples of public housing done right, “60 percent of residents live in cooperatives, state or subsidized housing,” and 80 percent of Austria’s population are entitled to public housing – conditions that exist in the USA are hardly further removed from reality. However, a more sympathetic view of public development and stronger government capacity on housing could begin where the city has already taken what is arguably the most difficult step – buying the land first.

A park with no intention is just a patch of grass that is hardly natural in the area and carries its own environmental issues with fertilizers, pesticides, lawn mowing and leaf blowing required to keep that grass clean and pristine. There are currently three houses on the property, recently purchased by the city, houses in a compact, central location rather than scattered in the suburbs. In a context where (1) Iowa City’s population growth has outstripped that of the suburbs, (2) urban sprawl is clearly detrimental to health and carbon emissions, (3) and an integral method of reduction of urban sprawl To keep people in compact urban centers, Iowa City should look for ways to increase its population rather than demolishing housing in an area suitable for compact, walkable development. Placing this development in public rather than private hands could help, and in a more equitable way compared to the private modality that previously prevailed.

Austin Wu is a Gazette Editorial Fellow. [email protected]