Urbandale leaders to consider effects of possible rezoning
In its 1986 comprehensive plan, which was revised in 2003, the city of Urbandale stressed the value of the Interstate Highway 35/80 corridor and its potential in contributing to economic development through office and business park construction and subsequent job growth, which was considered a long-term strategy.
But several big box retailers have recently shown an interest in the northern suburbs, which Urbandale Community Development Director Paul Dekker said is largely a result of the Jordan Creek Town Center and its broader effect on retail in Greater Des Moines. City leaders have since decided to take a second look at a few areas in the city that were originally zoned for office and business park development, to determine if retail might be a better fit.
Following a joint meeting on Dec. 16 between the Urbandale city council and the planning and zoning commission, a subcommittee including members of the two bodies was appointed to further study the issue and the potential effects of rezoning a handful of undeveloped areas along the interstate corridor.
The city has narrowed its focus to Northpark Drive, Douglas Avenue between 111th Street and I-35/80, Meredith Drive west of I-35/80, and Plum Drive, which Dekker said the city has plans to construct from 86th Street to 100th Street in either 2005 or 2006.
“The only opinion I’ve formed is that we have a good comprehensive plan, but maybe we could take a step back and take another look at it,” said council member Mary Polson, who was appointed by outgoing Mayor Brad Zaun to the subcommittee. Council member John Forst and planning and zoning commissioners Kevin Gass and Wayne Van Heuvelen were also appointed to the subcommittee, which has not scheduled an initial meeting.
Dekker said some retailers are interested in extending their presence in Greater Des Moines, particularly along the interstate corridor. The city’s distance from Jordan Creek, he added, would allow retailers “to cover all of the west side market, and also reach out farther into the northwestern part of the metro area.” He said he was not at liberty to disclose which retailers, or how many, had expressed interest in relocating to Urbandale.
“Jordan Creek Town Center has caused the west side ‘market center’ to shift to the southwest,” Dekker said.
Several big box retailers have opened new stores within Jordan Creek Town Center, with less than five miles separating their new stores from existing stores in the Valley West Mall area. Abandoning their existing Valley West locations and opening new stores in Urbandale could allow them to “blanket” Greater Des Moines.
Developers argue that fewer companies are in need of additional office space, which has slowed the market for office and business park development since 2000, with no indication that change is on the horizon. Forst said it would take a third party to discern whether that is a real trend, particularly following interest over the last three years from several large companies that had considered expansion in Urbandale.
“Those have happened in the last three years, so I’m hard pressed to buy into the argument that commercial development is a lost market,” he said.
A staff report issued prior to last month’s joint meeting stated that the interstate corridor and corresponding tax base has the potential to develop more quickly if the areas are rezoned for retail development. Forst said he would not be concerned if the land sat undeveloped.
“Our position is that [because of] our tax rate, and given the overall good climate of services, we’re not in dire need of those tax receipts,” he said. “We’re not struggling to make our budget.”
Planning and zoning commissioner Scott Weiser considers the undeveloped parcels “Urbandale’s bank account for the future,” but still sees the potential opportunity in rezoning some areas to allow for retail.
“It may be that corridor will never be developed as we’d envisioned and you’re faced with developers who could develop that land now and we could begin to develop the [non-residential property] tax base,” he said. But he added that “a lot of thought was put into the current plan, and we’re not anxious to move too far off of it.”
Gass said he would go along with the plan to take a second look at the issue, but is uncertain if further discussion will change his personal opinions.
“This was part of the comprehensive plan that we had just completed a year ago, so I think it’s premature to change anything,” he said. “Market conditions change and we need to be open minded, but I still think it’s premature.”
The city staff report emphasized the possible negative effect of big box retail on planned and existing retail, particularly among locally owned stores within Urbandale’s “village centers.” The comprehensive plan emphasized the city’s commitment to limit the amount of retail zoning in order to maintain a balance between supply and demand, and to support existing businesses.
Along with an increase in the non-residential property tax base, the city hoped that office and business park development would bring with it well-paying jobs that would provide more opportunities for residents to live and work in Urbandale. Jobs from big box retailers might not fulfill that same goal, and could result in more people commuting into Urbandale to fill those retail jobs, which would create a negative effect on local traffic.
Urbandale received Revitalize Iowa’s Sound Economy (RISE) grant money for assistance on past street and interchange improvement projects, such as construction of N.W. Urbandale Drive north of Meredith Drive. RISE grants are customarily awarded only to assist in office and industrial job growth, and the city acknowledges that, should those areas be rezoned, the grant money would likely need to be repaid.
Many residents built houses those areas with the expectation that they would eventually be surrounded by office buildings, not large retail stores. The city staff report says residents “should reasonably expect office/business park development within the corridor.”
“They were led to believe that this was going to be an office development and decided that they could live with that,” said Gass, who feels a commitment was made in the past to those residents.
Several city leaders also expressed concern that if areas are zoned for commercial development, it becomes difficult for the city to put a cap on it, leaving the door open to any number of big box retail stores.
“I think there’s a predisposition that we are certainly not after a long stretch of big box retail in the area, period,” Forst said. “We’re looking for other ideas and input from landowners. That’s the message we sent to most of that particular audience, is that we don’t want more of the same; we don’t want that type of retail development.”
One issue that could factor into rezoning discussions is the likelihood that Urbandale could be forced to pay back RISE grant money that was issued by the Iowa Department of Transportation, most recently for improvements to the Douglas Avenue interchange with Interstate 35/80. Tom Vaughn, RISE program coordinator for the Iowa DOT, said the grants are typically made for projects that will assist with economic development related to job growth, and usually do not include commercial development. But a single retail outlet within a larger development project would not nullify the agreement. A city staff report further noted that, if retail traffic had an adverse affect on the interstate system, additional retail development could jeopardize approval for interchanges at 100th Street and Meredith Drive. The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization included the proposed interchanges in its recently approved 25 year transportation plan.