Laura Bergus Responds to Friends of Historic Preservation Questionnaire
Friends of Historic Preservation asked questions of city council candidates. Here are my provided answers.
What is your favorite historic building in Iowa City and why?
The Englert. In 1995, in high school, Nick Bergus and I went on our first date there. We sat through three hours of Braveheart, in the front row of the half-a-theater movie theater. Years later, I heard about the Save the Englert campaign and was grateful the space would be something other than another bar. I have seen my favorite bands at the Englert since it reopened. When my daughter was young, she enjoyed puppets and dancers on stage. She and I have both had the privilege of performing there, too. I have spent late nights of Mission Creek and Witching Hour in the fog-filled theater, and envisioned the future of other non-profits during fundraising events there.
Through the Strengthen Grow Evolve campaign, I have learned a lot about what is required to maintain this 107-year-old structure, including the challenges of old brick and plaster and aging plumbing and HVAC systems. This building, which has been a catalyst for meaningful moments and memories in my own life, has also helped me understand the value of keeping spaces that bear the historic weight of community stories. To experience the Englert is to feel the importance of Iowa City’s cultural legacy.
Are you familiar with Iowa City's Historic Preservation Plan? Which goals within the plan is the City meeting? Where is the City failing?
I believe Iowa City has done well in identifying historically significant resources. For instance, we completed an update to the historic survey of downtown in 2018 and the architectural survey of the Sabin School and Southside Iowa City Neighborhood in 2015. Also, the creation of the Self-Supporting Municipal Improvement District for downtown and the north side since the adoption of the Historic Preservation Plan has also generated new funds for preservation and restoration in those areas.
Two related, but unmet goals are: heightening public awareness of historic preservation in the community and enhancing heritage tourism. The Historic Preservation Commission and Friends of Historic Preservation do a lot of work that remains unsung in the community. Iowa City residents and visitors alike will benefit from knowing more about the benefits of historic preservation and the stories of our town’s past. The current Historic Preservation Plan is about 12 years old. An update to the Historic Preservation Plan is due, and would be an excellent opportunity to raise awareness, gather public feedback, and focus on sites that could host tangible educational opportunities.
Many historic properties aren’t currently protected and could be demolished if the owner wishes. What is your approach to making sure buildings important to our community heritage are protected?
I agree with surveying, evaluating, and — where established criteria are met — designating buildings for local landmarking and neighborhoods for historic or conservation districts, providing parameters for preservation that may limit or prevent demolition. However, establishment of these protections is not enough. Effective preservation requires strategic communication between property owners, neighborhoods, and the city to ensure all parties know their rights and responsibilities. The city must also provide structured support for preservation efforts, including active public outreach and education, staff with historic preservation expertise, referrals for local vendors who understand local requirements, and help seeking financial support. The city must also consistently enforce regulations so all parties know what to expect from the process.
Iowa City has also has had some success with non-governmental groups organizing to save significant landmarks, most notably Old Brick and the Englert. Such campaigns may be a last resort if other preservation efforts are ineffective, but also can galvanize local philanthropy and create permanent homes for new (or renewed!) public uses, for lasting public benefit.
The State of Iowa and the federal government have multiple programs that provide financial assistance to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings. Despite Iowa City's large stock of historic buildings, we underperform compared to peer cities. If elected to city council, what will you do make sure Iowa City performs better?
First we should determine why we underperform. We should seek to learn from cities that are more successful at using these programs. My hope would be that improved public education and strategic communication would result more Iowa City properties benefiting from these programs. The city should promote these opportunities regularly to property owners. The city should encourage awareness among contractors and vendors for promoting these programs. Continued collaboration and strong partnerships between the city government and groups like Friends of Historic Preservation will also help ensure these opportunities are shared where they can find the best use. Iowa City can also let our partners, like the Iowa City Area Development Group, who help attract professional talent to our community, know that there is a chance to grow the industry of historic preservation program planning and facilitation. The city’s efforts to educate on these topics should emphasize the many benefits of preservation, not just the direct financial benefit of these programs. For instance, the city should include articulation of environmental and cultural benefits of historic preservation when promoting these programs.
Originally posted by the Friends of Historic Preservation.