Ames’ Growing Pains: Debating the best path forward for city development

February 6th, 2010 · 10 Comments

Nine years ago, after he first set foot in Ames to survey the city’s retail climate, Bucky Wolford returned home satisfied. A year and a half later, the developer from Chattanooga, Tennessee, formally announced his desire to build a new mall here, setting into motion an impassioned – and often misunderstood – debate that continues to influence Ames politics.

Seven years later, Wolford’s mall has yet to see the light of day. Some are skeptical that it ever will. This lack of resolution has created a convenient line of division in a larger debate on Ames development between those who enthusiastically support city growth and those who are accused of opposing it altogether. In reality, the dispute is not so cut and dry. “I think because of the mall, people aren’t able to see the value of smart land use as much as they could have before the mall,” says Matthew Goodman, a small business owner who serves on the city council. Erv Klaas, a retired biologist and active conservationist, has grown tired of the issue’s persistence: “I haven’t kept up with it, frankly, because it so disgusts me that they’re still planning on doing it.”

Organized opposition to Wolford’s proposal was spawned in the summer of 2003 – about a year after the developer’s initial appeal to the city council – in the form of Klaas’ Ames Smart Growth Alliance. The group’s primary concern was that the mall was (and still is) to be built on the city’s outskirts and would neglect important principles of environmentally sustainable development. “The anti-mall sentiment was not anti-mall,” says Dan Rice, a former city councilman. “Anti-location was the issue.”

The alliance launched an ambitious PR campaign and by the end of the year had planted yellow “No New Mall” signs in front yards throughout town. Despite these efforts, and against the recommendations of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission (on which Rice sat at the time), the project pushed forward. In January 2004, the council amended Ames’ Land Use Policy Plan – a long-term blueprint for city growth – to include commercial space by Interstate 35 and East 13th Street for a 650,000-square-foot shopping center and an additional “power center” – a 470,000-square-foot strip mall across the street. (The pre-Wolford land use plan had called for a regional retail site nearby along Highway 30.) Four months later, the council voted unanimously to annex the land.

Even so, smart growth advocates successfully tapped into voter discontent over the mall proposal. A poll paid for by The Ames Tribune around the time that the council changed the land use plan suggested half the city opposed the idea. At the end of the next year, three new men – Ryan Doll, Jim Popken, and Rice – were elected to the council. They had all made their opposition to the mall central components of their campaigns against their developer-favored opposition. “We caught them by surprise, and we had that sentiment over the mall to help us,” Klaas says.

Foreseeing the election results, the council voted 4-2 to rezone the annexed land for the developer’s project on the day of the election. After the new council members were seated the drama continued. The city’s land use plan was amended again to change the land from its commercial designation to industrial, prompting a fleeting lawsuit from Wolford’s attorney. By the end of 2007, Wolford had failed to meet the minimum square-footage commitment from businesses required under his agreement with the city. Not long after, the economy began to crumble. All told, plans for the mall continued to stall, and last November, when Doll, Popken, and Rice were up for reelection, voters wondered whether economic development in Ames had grown stagnant. “What happened was they had a gridlock, a lot of 3-3 votes,” Klaas says. “It was essentially a stalemate.”

Just as surely as voters had indicated in 2005 their opposition to Wolford’s mall by electing the smart growth trio, they rejected Doll and Rice at the polls in favor of more developer-friendly candidates last November. Popken, who opted not to seek reelection, was replaced by Peter Orazem, an animated professor of economics and stand-up comic with a wonky, expansion-oriented message. The headline in The Tribune the next day read, “Ames voters say ‘yes’ to growth.” (Doll did manage to hang on until his defeat in a runoff election four weeks later.)

“I think what they ran on was a change of attitude, and I’m pretty sure when all three of those new council members start seeing how budgets work and how incentives work, they’ll probably do pretty much the same things we did,” Rice says. “But the perception was [that we were] against all development, which was absolutely not true. It’s those types of misperceptions that won the election.” Orazem sees things differently. “I do think that the city needs to be much more accommodating to business, especially if we’re losing jobs in the state government like we have,” he says. “I think that probably some of the stuff that we were suggesting resonated with the citizenry. You know, people can think what they want.”

Klaas is a man who does just that. “The developers, the realtors, and the builders – three areas that work closely together – essentially form a cartel, a powerful cartel that controls city government because city government controls their self-interests,” he says. He readily admits that his views are not likely held by many others, but the groups he mentions did contribute considerable sums of money to the election’s victors. Orazem and Jeremy Davis, who defeated Doll in Ward 3, both received contributions from the Iowa Realtors and Home Builders of Ames PACs. And Davis, Orazem, and Tom Wacha, who defeated Rice in Ward 1, were all given generous donations from the Ames business community.

“I think [we’re] an easy target to lash out at,” says Dean Hunziker, who runs Hunziker & Associates Realtors. He is also a standing board member on the Ames Economic Development Commission and has a close working relationship with the city. “I don’t think that giving to a campaign necessarily gives you any control, for crying out loud. Quite frankly, if you look at the campaigns that most of the developers and builders in town gave to, talk to any one of those [candidates], there’s not a one of them that’s not their own thinker.” Goodman, who first won election to the city council in 2003 on a largely self-funded campaign, tends to agree. “I think money gets you impressions through marketing, so that the more money you have the more time someone is going to hear your message,” he says. “However, I don’t think that money has any influence on the people who take the money. This isn’t the Senate.”

Electoral wheeling and dealing aside, the newly realigned council is now in session and has started sifting through a variety of growth issues that contribute to the city’s ongoing dialogue on development. The recession, a hunger for new job opportunities, and perceptions that Ames’ economy lags behind those of nearby communities have given significant momentum to the proposals on which the three new councilmen based their campaigns – although they also raise questions about funding. Because Wolford’s mall dominated so much of the conversation since the 2005 election, advocates of smart growth will have their work cut out for them to fight the impression that they are stubbornly opposed to new development as they lobby the council in hopes of ensuring that future development is grounded in sustainable planning.

“Two half-dead malls”?
When Wolford first informed the city council of his desire to build a new mall, the owner of Ames’ existing mall at 28th and Grand felt threatened. To prepare for the competition, the company began considering a number of ideas to grow its property – which has not been renovated since 1991 – such as building a second story of department stores. But no major changes were ever made, and in 2004 North Grand Mall was sold. The new owner drafted a proposal to expand the area to 450,000 square feet, which would include a strip mall and open-air shopping center. “The plans were quite nice, I thought,” Klaas says. However, new development at North Grand stalled for many of the same reasons that have delayed construction of Wolford’s mall. “If the market were here, things would be here,” says Rice.

Meanwhile, on the day of the 2005 city council election and the vote to rezone the land annexed for Wolford’s mall, then-Councilwoman Sharon Wirth voiced her belief that two malls could not coexist in town. “I think we’re going to have two half-dead malls,” The Tribune reported her saying. Wirth’s concern echoed prior warnings from retired economics professor Kenneth Stone, who had told the council that he didn’t believe Ames had enough retail demand to support two large malls, and from a study commissioned by North Grand’s owner that reached the same conclusion.

Even in the absence of a new competitor, North Grand has seen better days. “Since they built the interstate, and since they expanded US 30, North Grand Mall became an unimportant location for anyone but people in northeast Ames,” says Orazem. “We’re supposed to be a regional retail center.” Over the past several years, the mall has seen storefronts close and business lost to newer retail outlets in towns like Ankeny and West Des Moines. Sydney Barker, who attends school at the Des Moines Area Community College in Boone but lives in Ames, typically shops for clothes at North Grand’s Aéropostale and Pacsun to avoid driving longer distances. “They have a pretty good selection,” she says. But her mother, who lives in Nevada, “will go out of her way to go to Ankeny.” It’s a trip that takes roughly twice the time it would take to drive into Ames, and Barker tags along when she can to take advantage of more choices and better deals.

The flipside of this is that a lot of Ames residents take pride in knowing that their city has avoided much of the unfettered urban sprawl that has ballooned the populations of suburbs like Ankeny and Waukee and dotted their landscapes with expansive strip malls and bland, cookie-cutter housing developments. One of smart growth’s key tenets argues that new development should be centrally concentrated within a city to so that people can get from point A to point B by walking, biking, or taking public transit, thereby reducing the need for long commutes and the air pollution they produce. Contrast that to a place such as Ankeny – my hometown – where most of the grocery stores are located along one long stretch of road and it’s an inconvenience to get anywhere without jumping in a car.

Smart growth: mixed results in northwest Ames
In 1997, Ames embarked on a bit of an experiment with smart growth as the city began development on the Somerset community on the northwest side of town. It was planned using a new urbanist design model. “Build houses up, not out, so lots can be narrower and land use efficiency can go up,” explains Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a former Iowa State University professor, in his textbook An Invitation to Environmental Sociology. “Bring back the front porch, the sidewalk, and the alleyway, all zones of interaction between neighbors.” Somerset’s commercial district is intended to be a second Main Street of sorts, a cornerstone of a self-reliant community within a community. In 2005, the non-profit 1000 Friends of Iowa – which helped the Ames Smart Growth Alliance get on its feet – commended Somerset’s design with its Best Development award.

But Somerset’s successes have been met with setbacks, and it is far from a perfect model of sustainable living. Residents have been slow to fill into condominiums and apartments. Plans for a school have stalled because not enough children live in the area. Some people who do live in the area wish for more variety in retail choices. The only grocery store nearby didn’t exist until last year, and it was built outside of Somerset as a means to circumvent its zoning requirements. “I was very adamantly against that idea of getting a new commercial district there,” Rice says of the new Fareway store. “It just basically keeps that march north, which is the most expensive way to grow in this town.”

In 2007, well before his decision to run for city council, Orazem penned a guest editorial for The Tribune in which he contended that Somerset had actually contributed to the sort of urban sprawl opposed by Rice. “Skeptics at the time pointed out that small towns such as Ames did not have the population base to support numerous local business centers, that residents wanted to raise their children in houses with yards and not next door to bars, and that high density apartment living in urban areas was in fact inferior to living in one’s own home,” he wrote. Judging by the influx of residents to the sprawling, suburban-style homes to the west at Northridge, Orazem’s assessment appears to be valid, if dismissive of Somerset’s accomplishments.

In any case, the development remains a work in progress. Jeff Benson, who works in the city’s Planning and Housing Department, told The Tribune last June that he expects more businesses to lease buildings there before long, and he cited a survey which indicated that the majority of Somerset’s residents believe the area is a success. And, when plans were first laid out for the community, the city enlisted the help of developers who contributed to the campaigns of Davis, Orazem, and Wacha – an example of smart growth advocates and their perceived foes working toward a common goal.

Downtown renovations
Ames’ true Main Street has had its own share of troubles, but recently it has been enjoying an upswing through the recession. Last May, the Iowa Department of Economic Development designated downtown Ames as a Main Street Iowa member and has since provided a substantial amount of free marketing and consulting services to businesses in the area. The Main Street Iowa status also potentially opens up tens of thousands of dollars in state funds to property owners and makes them eligible to apply for a wider range of grants and low-interest loans. Already, the city provides tax increment financing to downtown businesses, and it has taken advantage of a $15,000 matching grant program to preserve historical building facades. “We’re doing great things down there, I think,” Rice says.

Jayne McGuire, director of the Main Street Cultural District, agrees. “I think Ames is doing great. I know for downtown, everybody’s doing fine. They may be working on little tighter margins, but everybody’s doing well.” Recent store closures, she says, were nothing more than a result of corporate decisions. Although Ames has felt the impact of the recession, it has one of the lower rates of unemployment in the country according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, Orazem sees plenty of room for improvement. “What has happened is that the state of Iowa has used the excuse of a recession to transfer resources away from some parts of state government to other parts of state government,” he says. As a result, Ames has added only a few hundred net jobs since a decade ago as the private sector has struggled to fill in the void left by public sector layoffs – according to Orazem’s numbers, Ames has lost nearly 1,000 government jobs since 2000.

At this point, Orazem’s focus turns back to Wolford’s mall. “The type of retail that you have on Main Street does not compete with the type of retail that you have in malls,” he claims. To help Main Street grow, he says, two things need to happen. “One is to get more people to come to Ames to shop, and secondly, show them how to get to Main Street, because right now the signage is just terrible.” Orazem argues that the mall’s proposed location just off the interstate is the ideal spot to attract consumers from other communities. (Rice doesn’t buy this: “When I talked to the North Grand people, they had no fear of [a new mall] ever succeeding out there,” he says.) “[The issue] hasn’t come up a lot,” McGuire says. “We certainly welcome the mall. Anything to bring more people into Ames is always good for the downtown.” And the Main Street Cultural District is working on plans to provide better navigation to the downtown for out-of-towners.

The all-important dollar
Ames citizens who sent the smart growthers to the council in 2005, in all likelihood, were more concerned about the tax burden that extending city services – fire, sewage, CyRide, and the like – might have on their pocketbooks than they were about the environmental consequences associated with sprawl. In the case of Wolford’s mall, the city has requested that he build his own sewer line from Dayton Avenue to his land, which he does not presently have the money to do. Hunziker explains that developers typically handle the bulk of the costs associated with expansion, although some costs, including fire services, they do not.

The city’s land use plan has designated Ames’ southwest region (think University Plains and West Towne Pub) as its primary priority growth area. It is widely assumed that this is one of the most cost-effective places in which to expand. In 2003, Ames changed its land use plan to include the northwest side of town – the area Orazem once referred to as Somerset’s sprawl – as a secondary growth area. Goodman supports growth in these areas but also thinks that more attention should be paid to existing spaces inside Ames where new businesses could locate, such as Campustown and industrial parks. “I think you want to grow in a reasonable way, because places are going to grow,” he says. “Anything that’s going to cost the city money, growth will play a part. But let me make this very clear: if the growth of your costs that corresponds to the growth of that tax base are bigger, then it’s not good.”

For this reason, Goodman is opposed to what will likely be the new council’s first major growth decision: annexing the land north of Ada Hayden Heritage Park so that the developer of what would become the Rose Prairie community is bound by city rules to pay for utilities and environmentally conscious housing measures. The general assumption, held even by Klaas, is that in spite of the untested loopholes that the developer has tried jumping through to build outside the city’s limits, development there will happen regardless of whether the council annexes the area. “I don’t think that’s true,” says Goodman, who believes that the decision would come at the expense of taxpayers. “They are succeeding in scaring the city into annexing that land.” But low-impact housing, Klaas reasons, would discharge less pollutants into Ada Hayden lake than the poorly managed agriculture land that it would replace, and at this point annexation seems all but certain. “It’s just a straightforward economic decision,” says Orazem, who predicts Rose Prairie will generate millions of dollars of tax benefits for the city.

“There’s a lot of energy vampires in this community,” Hunziker says, responding to those who have criticized Ames realtors’ visions for growth. “They suck the energy out of everything.” Regardless of whether someone is an advocate of smart growth, he says, new developments are necessary in order for residents to enjoy the city’s perks, such as its many parks and the new aquatic center. “Those things all come with a cost,” he says, “and part of spreading that cost is having more people, more buildings that you can tax and spread it over.”

Perhaps the Ames Smart Growth Alliance’s uphill battle to place the city more firmly on the track of controlled, sustainable development is reflective of the broader struggle that conservation movements around the country and world face as population centers expand and the steady demand for new construction pushes on. But as several projects in Ames have suggested in recent years, the potential to find common ground may not be as unrealistic as the controversy surrounding Wolford’s mall has made it seem. “I think there’s a balance that needs to be met everyplace,” Hunziker says. Klaas, who has founded a new organization called Ames Citizens for Better Local Government to increase awareness of the principles of smart growth, says he is encouraged that the new council members are open to learning about his vision for development in the city. Although Rice worries that the new council will be responsive “less toward all the citizens and more toward a few,” he adds, “I don’t think this new council’s going to screw things up. I mean, it’s very hard when you have a great city here to begin with.”

Tags: 2010 · AP Issues · Cover Stories · Gavin Aronsen · January 2010

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