Zoning In

Since early May 2000, I have participated as a member of the Mayor's Ad Hoc Committee for 53rd Street in Davenport. The purpose of the committee is to ascertain what to do with 218 acres the City prematurely purchased last year within the 53rd Street/Eastern Avenue Mixed-Use Development project area prior to the project's demise.

To date, four land use scenarios have been presented to the committee that include :
-- a public park facility complete with swimming pool, recreation center, branch library, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, picnic areas, and bike and hiking trails;
-- a golf course surrounded by residential and commercial development, not unlike the Mixed-Use project except while the City would still own the land, they would lease it to a private enterprise for development and management;
-- sell all the land for the highest price to the highest bidder;
-- and finally, retain approximately 40 acres for public amenities such as a passive park and greenways or a possible branch library, and sell the remainder in parcels that preserve green space and create more natural zones through more proactive zoning ordinances that allow for such controls.

The City claimed its primary purpose in devising the Mixed-Use project was to control further haphazard development in one of the fastest growing sections of the city, if not the entire state. The question becomes 'do we, as a city, need to own property to control development?' The answer should be "not neccessarily." Cities across the country are facing this same challenge in our present booming economy. Real estate development is soaring, but without planning and the implementation of sensible zoning, such development enhances the pockets of the developers, not necessarily the quality of the community as a whole.

Upon the completion of the I-74 interchange, 53rd Street development took off at an unprecedented pace. There was little order to it, which began creating congestion and traffic hazards. Furthermore, there was no green space or public amenities north of Kimberly and east of Brady. Several aldermen saw this as an opportunity to justify building a golf course with high-priced residential and commercial development through the use of TIF and other incentive-based financing methods as a way to provide infrastructure and amenities using tax dollars rather than the traditional use of developer dollars. It was also a way to minimize developers' risk by transferring it to taxpayers.

The project nearly succeeded as such, but thanks to the exhaustive efforts of CURV (Citizens United for a Responsible Vision), the plan was stopped before it came to fruition, but not before the City invested over $4 million to purchase approximately 218 acres in the proposed project area. Now the City must decide what to do with the land it owns, but how does it arrive at such a decision? The 53rd Street Ad Hoc Committee came up with criteria upon which all scenarios shall be considered. They include :
-- minimizing taxpayers' risk; maximizing property values;
-- shared costs between City and private sector;
-- create public open/green space; conform to the City's overall Comprehensive Land Use Plan;
-- involve community in decision through public input;
-- prove feasible and timely.

Much of the meeting time in the last two months has been taken up trying to glean what financial and legal obligations the City has relative to the project area. In one of the purchase agreements for part of the 218 acres, a clause was inserted stating that the City would connect 65th and 67th Streets through the project area from the railroad tracks just east of Brady Street over to Eastern Avenue. However, with the Mixed-Use plan off the table, a legal question has arisen as to whether or not the City is still obligated to put the street in. Also at issue is what kind of street is required. Nothing was specified in the purchase agreement.

Obviously the property owner wants the street in because it would greatly increase the value of the property, creating another 53rd Street development potential. The issue is whether or not the expenditure of another estimated $3 million to build the road is in the best interest of the community, right now? With other capital improvements high on the priority list, such as stormwater management and sewer repair, relocation of the art museum; downtown parking ramps; renovation of John O'Donnell; 2nd and Gaines intersection improvement; to name a few, connecting a street where no development is presently occurring is arguably out of line.

More importantly, however, is the larger issue of haphazard development of yet another corridor of property with no new or improved zoning ordinances to govern the additional projected sprawl, such as compulsory open space zoning and/or adequate public facilities zoning. Without such zoning provisions, the potential for a repeat of 53rd Street is eminent. By postponing the connecting of 65th and 67th, the City can implement new zoning requirements that will better define our community and help raise the bar for quality community development. Timing is everything and the time to consider such planning innovation couldn't be more opportune because the City, for the first time in over 20 years, is revamping its Comprehensive Land Use Plan for Davenport. Meanwhile, Davenport One is initiating an inventory of downtown properties to establish redevelopment potential and priorities. And the Northwest Industrial Park is ready for tenants. The 53rd Street/Eastern Avenue project area should be considered as a part of a whole and any new development should adhere to new standards that ensure the highest and best use of land.

With that said, it is important that the public get involved with this mission. Several Ad Hoc Committee members and aldermen are trying to prematurely push the four land use scenarios mentioned above before the City Council for a decision. This process should not be rushed or fast-tracked. The Committee originally committed to at least three to five public input sessions on the subject and this should not be deviated from. The scenarios have not been investigated fully enough, so to make any kind of recommendation to the Council at this point would be completely irresponsible.

There is no question that the committee members do not all agree on the various proposed scenarios. But that is what makes the dialogue so important. The Ad Hoc Committee has a fair representation of the differing views about what constitutes the best course of action for the City-owned land, which in turn is reflective of the community's diverse viewpoints. The 53rd Street Mixed-Use project has been hugely controversial, enough to turn over nearly an entire city council in the last election. Therefore, it will take time to repair the damage done by the previous Council, and the devastation looming caused by the current council for not healing community wounds by delivering on their promises to the public when they had the chance. The only alternative left is for the public to get involved with the present situation as it exists and create positive change that will prevent similar mistakes in the future.

To that end, the Mayor's Ad Hoc Committee Meetings are held nearly every Tuesday at 5 pm at City Hall. The next such meeting is scheduled for July 18. In addition, those interested in further public dialouge are invited to attend a meeting of CURV this Thursday night, July 13, at Country Kitchen (corner of Brady and 53rd Streets) at 7pm.

Anyone interested in getting involved with our city's development, land use, planning and zoning, and urban sprawl issues should attend.

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