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Site plan approved for new GEICO building in North Liberty

Council members disagree on parking lot

NORTH LIBERTY– Mayor Terry Donahue said he was amazed at the number of parking spaces included in the GEICO site plan, approved at a North Liberty City Council meeting July 11.
The building, to be located east of Interstate 380 off Landon Road, has a parking requirement of 252 spaces, but the developer included 466 to accommodate expected shift work.
“They (GEICO) have a lot of employees,” explained Ben Mitchell of MMS Consultants. “They would take more if they could get it.”
Over 400 people are employed at one of the insurance company’s current facilities, a service and call center, in Coralville. Those employees will transfer to North Liberty once construction is complete, which could be as early as April 2018.
“We’ve been hoping to see just this sort of development in this area,” said City Planner Dean Wheatley. “This plan has really morphed over time and come into focus.”
Iowa-City based A&M Development LLC, a group of investors led by McComas-Lacina Construction owner Mike Hahn, originally purchased the 5.69 acres GEICO will sit on as part of a 40-acre acquisition back in 2011. The area, known as The Villas at Liberty Executive Park, is already home to the University of Iowa Community Credit Union (UICCU) and Corridor Business Journal (CBJ).
Wheatley said the GEICO developer, Bourn Advisory Services LLC of Tucson, Ariz., has worked well with city officials.
“The first concept we saw of the building had no masonry at all,” he said. “He understood we had design standards and modified plans to meet those standards.”
The site includes a two-story, 50,266-square-foot building with an outdoor eating area and 1,800-square-foot courtyard at the entry. There are also multiple bike racks, as well as connections to surrounding sidewalks and trails.
What remains– some 190,000 square feet– is largely devoted to the parking lot.
“While there’s a lot of paving and hard surface on the site, that’s the nature of this business,” said Wheatley. “They have a lot of folks in their building.”
Mitchell said as many as 200 employees would be working at a time.
“The shift change is the big one,” he explained. “You’re going to have overlap where you can’t have everybody waiting for a parking spot to punch in.”
He added the parking lot would likely never be full, which only confirmed council member Chris Hoffman’s worries.
“This will look like a giant freeway out there,” said Hoffman. “The building itself looks great. It will be a great asset visually to the community. But we’re at the place in history where we could do a little better with this parking lot.”
He referenced the UICCU and CBJ parking lots, which incorporate tiered parking and a detention basin, respectively.
“There’s a lot of cement down there, but it’s interesting,” he added.
In addition to its nearly 500 parking spaces, the GEICO site plan includes 21 transitional islands and 60 new tree plantings, as well as hundreds of shrubs.
“They would’ve had no islands at all if it was up to the owners’ perspective to get the maximum amount of parking,” said Mitchell. “They feel they might even be short.”
Council member Brian Wayson was sympathetic toward the developer.
“The thing that concerns me is this is a company. They know how many people they have,” he said. “They actually wanted more spots but to meet our (landscaping) requirements took away spaces already.”
Nonetheless, Hoffman and fellow council members Jim Sayre and Sarah Madsen questioned Mitchell about removing spots to add more greenery.
“In terms of percentage, there’s quite a bit of green space on the site right now,” argued Mitchell. He said they could add plantings on the east side or convert the west berm into more parking to enlarge the existing islands.
But Wheatley urged council members to reconsider their request.
“The berm is there to provide a landscape environment along the interstate for this office park development,” he explained. “If you trade that for green space within a parking lot that no one sees, is that a good trade-off?”
Donahue agreed many people wouldn’t see the parking lot.
“Please remember with the credit union and with the CBJ, their parking is up front or to the side,” said Donahue. “This will not really be seen by the general public at all because the building is up front.”
Sayre disagreed.
“Everybody that drives the freeway and everybody developing to north and east will see it,” he said.
Ultimately, the council decided to leave the berm but passed an amendment to the site plan to add vegetation and screening on the east side.
However, both Hoffman and Sayre said they wouldn’t support the site plan without additional modifications to the parking lot, which Wheatley, again, advised against.
“It’s very, very efficient,” he said. “Anything you do here, every little curve, every little change you make you’re going to start sacrificing parking spaces.”
Hoffman said he was OK with losing spaces.
“I’m not in the business of trying to build this building. I’m just trying to make the community a little more visually appealing,” he said.
With the help of Madsen, he eventually settled on an amendment to remove 14 spaces and replace them with green space.
“I’m just trying to brainstorm on how to make a really quite boring parking lot slightly more attractive,” said Madsen, who argued losing even 28 spaces would leave the lot with far more than what is required.
The parking amendment passed, 3-2, with council members Annie Pollock and Wayson in the negative.
“It’s got some trees in it. It looks better than where I park,” argued Wayson. “It’s a parking lot. You can only do so much with a parking lot.”
Despite Pollock and Wayson being opposed to the parking amendment, the site plan was approved, 5-0.
“That’s tricky,” said Pollock. “So if you like one (amendment) but not the other it doesn’t matter.”
Later, at a July 25 meeting, the council approved a change to the plat, which essentially restored the spaces removed from the site plan.
“As it turns out, the 14 parking spaces that were reassigned or redirected by council to be converted to green space on the original site plan were in fact very important to the owner or tenant of the property,” Wheatley explained. “So much so that they bought additional property to add them back.”