Archive for the ‘downtown’ Tag

Downtown living in Iowa City: from luxury highrise to student rental

The housing market in downtown Iowa City is characterized by disparity. Rental properties have long been dominated by University of Iowa students eager to abandon their dorm-dwelling days, but an influx in high-end condominium development over the past several years has added a new dynamic to downtown, luring homeowners who are looking for a slice of urban life in the middle of the Midwest.

This series examines both extremes of the downtown Iowa City housing market, including interviews with property developers and downtown residents — both students and non-students alike — along with photos, video and audio.

  • Begin reading here to learn about downtown’s flagship condo building, Plaza Towers, and to find out when (and if) to expect similar projects in the future. Be sure to watch the audio slide show tour of Plaza Towers for images from inside the complex and views from the top of Iowa City’s tallest high rise.
  • Continue reading here for an interview with the Loewenbergs, residents of Plaza Towers and two New York City natives who have returned to their urban roots without ever stepping foot outside of Iowa.
  • Round out your knowledge of downtown housing by reading this comprehensive overview of student rentals. Watch a video feature of two University of Iowa seniors who are tired of their neighbors’ partying tendencies, learn who owns what in downtown rental property and find out how some students are taking landlord disputes to the courtroom.

The cost of downtown living for Iowa City’s student renters

Houses and apartments for rent make up the vast majority of residential property near downtown Iowa City, and most of the tenants are university students, creating unique problems for property managers and renters alike.

By Lauren Sieben

Madison Sheets and Amanda Leppert moved into their downtown Iowa City apartment this year because it was, in a word, “easy.” The University of Iowa seniors were friends with a tenant who already lived in the building, and signing a lease with her eliminated the need for an arduous apartment search or long lines at leasing offices.

But the girls’ first few months living in Three Towers, near the intersection of Gilbert and Burlington streets, hasn’t been as easy as signing the lease.

“It’s okay, I live here”

The building — which is managed by Apartments Downtown — consists mostly of college-age tenants. Sheets and Leppert said they’ve lived in other student apartment buildings from the same property managers, but they’ve never lived in a building with as much partying or building damage as Three Towers.

Amanda Leppert and Madison Sheets pose in their downtown Iowa City apartment. The girls have had issues with loud neighbors since moving into the building this August. (Photo: Lauren Sieben)

Amanda Leppert and Madison Sheets pose in their downtown Iowa City apartment. The girls have had issues with loud neighbors since moving into the building this August. (Photo: Lauren Sieben)

“I called [Apartments Downtown] about stuff that was going on in the apartment and [an employee] told me that I should just call the police and not them, because they can’t really do anything if a kid’s like, throwing up in the hallway,” Sheets said.

Security cameras are hoisted to the tops of walls on each floor, protected by plastic casing. They’re a recent addition to the building after apartment parties this fall led to damages in the building ranging from inexplicable burn marks on the stairwell carpet to urine stains.

Leppert said she caught a man urinating in the front foyer of the building on the weekend of a football game. She threatened to call the police, but he was undeterred.

“I screamed at him, and then he said, ‘It’s okay, I live here,’ ” Leppert said.

Sheets and Leppert said that although their property managers have generally been helpful and responsive to other requests, they haven’t been successful in taming their rowdier tenants.

Since the bar age in Iowa City increased from 19 to 21, Leppert said she’s also noticed an increase of partying in the building. There used to be a “bar break,” she explained, but more underage students are hosting apartment parties because the 21-ordinance has left them with few other options.

“There’s people below us that party, there’s people next to us that party. It’s the whole building,” Sheets said.

Sheets, Leppert and their two roommates each pay $510 per month in rent plus the cost of utilities. The girls are graduating this spring, but even if they weren’t, both said they wouldn’t stay in the building, despite its proximity to downtown Iowa City.

The primary downtown players

Apartments Downtown did not respond to interview requests. The business is registered to James Clark, according to the Iowa Secretary of State website, and has been registered to Clark since September 1972.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen included Clark in its Iowa City’s Fabulous 150 list. In the article, Clark is described as owning and having developed “more Iowa City real estate than anyone else (301 parcels assessed at $93.6 million), providing housing to more than 1,000 university students, as well as businesses, mostly in the downtown area.”

One of Clark’s early developments was Pentacrest Apartments in 1978, near the intersection of Burlington and Capitol Streets.

Apartments Near Campus, another large property management company in Iowa City, is also registered under Clark’s name on the Secretary of State website. Apartments Downtown and Apartments Near Campus are both listed as “fictitious names,” which are also known as DBA names, short for “Doing Business As.”

The state of Iowa requires some businesses to register their DBA names. Using “fictitious” or DBA names is completely legal, according to the Iowa Secretary of State.

Among other business names that have been or are currently registered to Clark are Associated University Realty, AUR Downtown Apartments, DTA Iowa City Inc. and Iowa City Maintenance.

Apartments Near Campus declined requests for an interview.

Although Clark owns an enormous amount of student rental properties in downtown Iowa City, myriad other small and mid-size property management companies also rent to students.

Heritage Property Management, which owns a number of Iowa City-area rental properties, did not respond to requests for an interview. Prestige Properties, LLC was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

Legal action

Occasionally, the issues between a student renter and his or her landlord extend beyond the usual noise and party complaints. Student Legal Services at the University of Iowa offers legal advice to students facing a range of issues from drinking tickets to divorces.

Landlord-tenant disputes make up the largest number of civil issues that students bring to Student Legal Services, Supervising Attorney Greg Bal said. The most common dispute is over the landlord’s failure to return the rental deposit.

“The larger [property managers], they’re probably corporations, and who knows where the owners are,” Bal said. “Their incentive, I think, is to maximize their profit and to return as little of the deposit as possible. That’s the impression i get.”

In the 3 1/2 years Bal has been at Student Legal Services, the organization has only lost one case against a landlord.

“We do see certain companies’ names come up more often than others, but I’m not sure if that’s because they’re not complying with the law … or if it’s just because they happen to have more apartments,” Bal said.

A “cheap, fun place”

Many students embrace the challenges of renting downtown in exchange for relatively low rent costs and close proximity to campus. Although the rental market is dominated by students, many students don’t think the market saturation is a deterrent to home buyers.

Lauren Connolly, a senior at the University of Iowa, lives in a 3-bedroom apartment in Van Buren Village on South Van Buren Street. The building is managed by Heritage, and although there are a few unappealing aspects of the area — namely,  its location next to the train tracks and some neighbors’ “pot-smoking habits” — Connolly said she’s happy in the building, and with her low $300 monthly rent payment.

Connolly doesn’t think the abundance of student housing near downtown should necessarily scare people out of looking to purchase a home.

“I’m sure it would affect older couples and people with young children more than it would affect first time home buyers looking for a cheap, fun place to lay down roots,” she said.

Interested in the other side of downtown housing? Click here to read the rest of the package, including photos and a tour of a high-rise condominium building in Iowa City.

Iowa City couple shifts from suburban to urban housing

The city-dwelling duo has always had an “affinity for urban living.”

By Lauren Sieben

Ina and Jerry Loewenberg

Ina and Jerry Loewenberg pose in their Plaza Towers condominium in downtown Iowa City. (Photo: Lauren Sieben)

Ina and Jerry Loewenberg moved straight to the suburbs when they first arrived to Iowa City in 1969. Two years ago, the New York natives decided to return to their urban roots without leaving the quaint Midwest.

The couple moved into Plaza Towers, a luxury condominium complex in the downtown Iowa City Pedestrian Mall. Ina said the attraction to Plaza Towers was instant: “When we walked in the door and saw the view.”

Looking for more information about downtown condominiums? Click here for the full article and an audio/visual tour of Plaza Towers.

Downtown convenience

The Loewenbergs first relocated to Iowa City for the university; Jerry came to the University of Iowa as a political science professor before serving as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from 1984 to 1992. Ina worked for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in financial management.

Jerry and Ina lived in their River Heights home, a neighborhood located off North Dubuque Street, for 38 years before moving downtown.

“We loved our house. It was very beautiful and it suited us very well,” Ina said. But the move to Plaza Towers came at a natural turning point for the Loewenbergs. “We’re older people, so it was a good moment in our lives to think about downsizing to have less driving, no stairs — you know, a lot of conveniences for being older.”

And since moving from a house to a downtown apartment, the couple has been able to downsize considerably. Instead of two cars they now have one, and trips to the gas station have been reduced to a once-a-month affair.

“Your carbon footprint is much lower living in the city than it is living in the country,” Jerry said. “Suburban living, particularly for people our age, requires so much work that isn’t really very worthwhile.”

The Loewenbergs do almost all of their grocery shopping at the Bread Garden, a grocery store located on the first floor of Plaza Towers, and Ina walks to the nearby Senior Center “almost every day.”

“Everything is within walking distance. I still go to my office everyday in Shaeffer Hall, and that’s 10 minutes from here,” Jerry said.

Ped Mall noise: Not a nuisance

Plaza Towers

View of Plaza Towers from the top story, facing southwest (Photo: Lauren Sieben)

The Loewenbergs took advantage of the open layout in their one-bedroom, 1,650-square-foot condo to build two office studies and a bookcase. The unit also includes a patio overlooking the Ped Mall.

Their condo’s close proximity to the downtown bars doesn’t bother the Loewenbergs. “It sometimes gets a little noisy,” Ina said. “But growing up in New York was noisy.”

“People our age are not going to go cruising around at 10 o’clock at night anyway, so if it gets really noisy we can close the windows,” Jerry said.

Bobby Jett, the property manager at Moen Group, which developed of Plaza Towers, said in a recent interview that condo owners and renters in Plaza Towers range in age from mid 20s to late 80s.

“A lot of East coast people say they cannot believe how easy it is to get to stuff here, and how much is going on,” Jett said.

Jerry and Ina said they enjoy the wide age range of Plaza Towers residents.

“It’s a very mixed group of people in this building; there’s a few people our age but not many,” Jerry said. “And then every other age group, down to students. It’s wonderful.”

The couple says they don’t miss anything about suburban living, and they don’t foresee any future moves.

“We see it as all advantages, really. We’re very pleased with it,” Jerry said.

Click here for the main menu of the downtown housing story package, with links to more information about Iowa City condos and student apartments.

Downtown living reels in residents from ages “18 to 80”

The Pedestrian Mall party scene in Iowa City hasn’t dissuaded buyers from paying top dollar for luxury housing.

By Lauren Sieben

The University of Iowa touts numerous academic accolades, along with one honor that university officials might prefer to disregard: the number nine spot in the Princeton Review’s annual list of top party schools.

But in spite of Iowa City’s nocturnal transition into a hub for alcohol-fueled shenanigans, the party scene hasn’t deterred buyers at residential buildings downtown, including Plaza Towers — a luxury condominium complex in the downtown Pedestrian Mall.

“I remember when I graduated law school in ’79, realtors were telling me there was a lot of demand for downtown housing,” said Marc Moen, the founder of Moen Group and the developer of Plaza Towers. “Thirty years later there still weren’t any properties.”

Before the completion of Plaza Towers in 2006, the area was used as a parking lot. It was the last developable space in the city.

Bobby Jett and Marc Moen

Bobby Jett (left) and Marc Moen pose in their Plaza Towers penthouse. (Photo: Lauren Sieben)

The first three floors of the building house commercial property, including the hotelVetro lobby, Formosa, the Bread Garden and Iowa City Fitness. Hotel rooms occupy floors four through six, and the rest of the building – floors seven through 14 – houses condos for sale and for rent.

Each ultra-modern unit includes high-end appliances and a bird’s-eye view of the city. The condos essentially sell themselves, explained Bobby Jett, Moen’s husband and the property manager at Moen Group.

“We spend zero on advertising,” Jett said.

Moen Group owns other rental properties in Iowa City, primarily drawing in students. But the steep cost of living at Plaza Towers has kept most students out, attracting tenants and buyers who range in age between 20 and over 80 years old.

Paying a premium

A 500 to 600 square-foot unit at Plaza Towers rents for $1,180 a month; an 1,100 square-foot unit rents for around $2,160. Rent doesn’t include utilities or the $85 monthly parking fee, and condos are priced roughly between $350 and $460 per square foot.

$650,000 can afford a 1,675-square-foot unit with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Critics initially doubted the viability of high-end housing in Iowa City, but the condos at Plaza Towers sold before the complex was completed.

“All the banks said, ‘No way, it’s not going happen … no one will pay that,’ ” Jett said. “It was a gamble, but that’s the only way you really get ahead.”

Buyers who aren’t determined to live downtown can spend a fraction of the cost for double the space by taking their search a few miles out. As of November 2010, the average home in Iowa City sells for $141 per square foot, according to real estate search engine Trulia.com.

Party people

But many buyers are willing to spend double to live steps away from restaurants, shops, cultural events and even a few unruly undergraduates.

“Some point directly to the students and say ‘[They are why] I love being here,’ “ Moen said. “[But] if you ask people point blank if they live here because there’s a bunch of drunk people in town, they’d say no.”

Moen informally surveyed condo owners and tenants at Plaza Towers before the November city vote to either return to a 19 bar age in Iowa City or retain the 21 ordinance — the 21 ordinance ultimately won. But the results of his survey, Moen said, were “all over the board.”

“People that live and bought here wanted to do it because the students were here. They wanted to be around energy,” Jett said.

Click here to read a profile of the Loewenbergs and find out why the Iowa City couple moved from their longtime suburban home to a condo in Plaza Towers.

Linn St. Place

The success of Plaza Towers has inspired similar projects downtown, bringing in higher numbers of permanent residents to a traditionally student-dominated neighborhood.

Ryan O'Leary poses at Linn St. Place

Realtor Ryan O'Leary sells renovated condominiums at Linn St. Place, a building formerly occupied by student renters. (Photo: Lauren Sieben)

Two blocks away from Plaza Towers at the corner of Linn and Court streets, Ryan O’Leary, a realtor at Lepic-Kroeger in Iowa City, sells renovated condos at a price point close to that of Plaza Towers.

Linn Street Place, formerly a student apartment building, first began renovations in the past year and a half, O’Leary said. The three-floor building is home to commercial offices and 48 residential units; some renovated, some undergoing renovations and others still being leased to tenants.

The base price for one of O’Leary’s units starts between $175,000 and $225,000, averaging $250 to $275 per square foot.

“One of my colleagues had said that he thought we were crazy,” O’Leary Said. “He said what we should have done was just painted the walls and changed the fridges and then sold them to rich kids from Chicago. And I was really offended by that, because the infrastructure of the building is excellent.”

Costs by comparison: Downtown and eastside property for sale

  • A one-bedroom, one-bathroom unit at downtown Linn St. Place with 900 square feet is listed for $277,000.
  • Less than a mile away, a three-bedroom two-bathroom home on Governor Street with 1,786 square feet and a back yard is listed for $250,000.
  • Source: Lepic-Kroeger, Realtors Current Listings (Oct. 20, 2010)
An unrenovated kitchen

An un-renovated kitchen at Linn St. Place (Photo: Lauren Sieben)

Each unit has a patio – some as large as 15 by 30 feet – and each comes with two heated, underground parking spots and storage space.

O’Leary’s aims his marketing efforts at young professionals, retirees and empty nesters. The condos have attracted buyers from ages “18 to 80.” The trick, O’Leary said, is not to target only one demographic in marketing the renovated units.

“The fact that we are two blocks from downtown makes a huge difference,” O’Leary said, noting that the building’s proximity to restaurants and shops attracts buyers who are environmentally conscious and looking for “walkability.”

Although O’Leary’s marketing efforts haven’t focused on students, some parents of students have shown interest in purchasing units for their children.

“We figure our building will appeal to anybody … that values both a clean quiet and a professional atmosphere, but also the proximity to downtown,” he said.

Remodeled kitchen

A remodeled kitchen in one of O'Leary's fully-renovated condominiums (Photo: Lauren Sieben)

At the start of the building’s transition from rentals into condos, O’Leary struggled with a few rowdy student renters. But after the first year of new rules, O’Leary said partying isn’t a problem and hasn’t dampened the interest of buyers.

“The perception by many is that anything within a mile of downtown is going to be overrun with students having loud parties four nights a week. That’s just not the case,” O’Leary said. “There are lots of neighborhoods that are clean and quiet and don’t have problems with vandalism or noise pollution.”

Future projects?

Other developers have built similar high-end condos, but mostly outside of downtown and into nearby Coralville.

The University of Iowa plans to rebuild the Voxman School of Music and Clapp Recital Hall — a complex that was destroyed by the 2008 flood — at the southeast corner of Burlington and Clinton streets. The $125 million building includes plans of residential condominium space, according to a report from Facilities Management.

Talk has also circulated of condo development above the future University of Iowa Museum of Art, but university spokesperson Tom Moore said potential locations for the new museum have not yet been determined.

Money, Jett said, is the key factor for future projects downtown.

“Of [permanent residents], how many have the income to buy something here who don’t want a yard and a swing set?” he said. “It’s a very, very limited number of people who want to live like this and who can afford to live like this, so to build another [building] like this – could it even survive? Are there enough people that could fill it? That’s the unknown.”

Click here to return to the main menu of the downtown housing story package.