Council talks condos

Jacob Lane · Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Proper upkeep and management of developments in West Liberty dominated discussion Tuesday, Feb. 7, during a public hearing at the city council meeting.

Community member Margaret Ponce voiced her concern regarding apartment complexes being built along Short Street, right by her home.

“I think that they’re really ill equipped on that part of town to have not only three apartment buildings, but have three more,” she said. “This street is not equipped for that kind of traffic.”

Coralville based developers Alta Ventures is in the middle of building a series of condominiums. They have completed three four-unit buildings, with more on the way.

The condos are being built on the west side of Short Street, by farmland owned by Doug Dvorak and several Golden Years housing units.

Construction has been ongoing since last year, with the city having just agreed to enter into a Developer’s Agreement that opens up TIF funding for Alta Ventures for the complex.

In fact, it was during a public hearing regarding this agreement that Ponce brought her concerns to the council, which included noise and garbage.

“I don’t think you have a handle on the ownership of these, the people who own these apartment dwellings don’t have any ownership of their property,” added Ponce. “I want to give these people on Short Street a chance, but I’m feeling very upset about it.”

This opened up wider discussion about apartment complexes in West Liberty, which included the neighboring apartment facility along Prairie Street, owned by WLMC LLC.

“We’ve started to address some things,” said West Liberty Police Chief about noise and garbage in the area. “We’re just getting started.”

Council Member Cara McFerren voiced her concern about the amount of trash on the Short Street property, including leftover debris from construction.

She and council members Joey Iske suggested an overseer, or property manager, who could be held accountable for upkeep at the property.

There is still debris left over from construction, as well as the fact that the street merely comes to a dead end, which can make traffic build up.

Thus the crux of one discussion point, do developers that live outside of the community have any vested interest in up keeping their property?

However, City Manager Lawrence McNaul noted that the dumpsters had recently been changed at the apartments to something more adequately sized for the residents.

Hopefully this would put a stop to any excessive garbage as residents learn how to properly dispose of waste.

Another topic, renting vs buying property.

All 12 units which were built on Short Street were immediately filled with renters last November, an indication of the ongoing need for more apartments in West Liberty.

In fact, the lack of apartments in the city as a whole has been an ongoing challenge, indicated by the Comprehensive Plan Update of West Liberty put out in 2016.

Prepared by HBK Engineering, it notes that the 2010 census indicated there were 1,316 housing units, up 8.5 percent from 2000. Around 64.5 percent of housing units are owner occupied, while 30.5 percent are renter occupied.

Meanwhile, across the United States 12.5 percent of housing units are vacant, while that number drops to 5 percent in West Liberty, which has a population of at least 3,500.

“A potential reason for this lower percentage is that buildings in West Liberty are well taken care of and not as easily condemned,” it states.

It also state another possible reason for less vacant buildings: “West Liberty is not building in excess but rather building to suit population demands.”

So what does this mean? Well, one possible takeaway is that more and more people are renting apartments, which are being built as the people come in.

“We’re growing and city’s have growing pains,” said Mayor Robert Hartman. “Things take a while to get accustomed and get with what the rest of the city is doing.”

The same Comprehensive Plan Update states West Liberty has been growing by 32 people per year for a decade and could reach 4,000 people by 2020.

Of course, one issue with renters vs property owners is that renters may be less likely to take care of their facility, or the town as a whole. The argument goes both ways.

The condos are for sale at the Alta Ventures condominium along Short Street, but so far nobody has bought them. Soon there will be more, which will most likely be rented out.

“I think that by saying these are never going to get bought by someone whose going to buy them to own them forever, I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not,” said Council Member Melody Russell.

She brought up her own story, similar to many other residents, which begins with someone renting an apartment when they first come to town and then looking for a house.

“I would like to see that we have better guidelines or ordinances,” say added. “Which is something the Downtown Task Force is working on to make sure landlords are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

The Downtown Task Force, which was created last year, meets twice a month to discuss issues such as buildings and building ownership in West Liberty.

The crew, which consists of community members, is expected to become more active this year and bring recommendations for changes to ordinances this year.

Eventually the discussion pulled back to the apartments along Short Street.

The city will move forward with a developer’s agreement with Alta Ventures through a 4-0 vote. But, the council still needs to approve plans for the next phase of construction.

That’s when the city can voice its concerns to the developers.

“We have had successful town homes, but we have to identify the right way those areas need to be looked at and managed,” said City Treasurer Lee Geertz. “But again, we do have successful town homes throughout our community.”

With the number of employees living in West Liberty thanks to West Liberty Foods, and a millennial trend to own and not rent, West Liberty is still figuring out how it’ll all work.

It seems to go one development and one discussion at a time, but some day maybe we’ll get there.
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