Iowa City Press-Citizen: Fab Lab Can Do It All

Monday, February 17, 2014
Web Note:  Kirk Cheyney received a BSE degree in biomedical engineering in 2011.

By Mitchell Schmidt
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Imagine being able to access anything, from a drill press or table saw to a laser cutter or 3D printer, all in one location.

And at this center, called a Fab Lab, you not only have the tools to build anything you want, but you also have access to educational opportunities to learn to use unfamiliar equipment and hone new skills.

Kirk Cheyney, director of operations with the STEAM Room Fab Lab, said that’s exactly what people will find at the Fab Lab he has planned for Iowa City.

“If you took a recreation center and you mixed it with Tony Stark’s workroom, that’s a Fab Lab,” Cheyney said. “We take every tool that you need to build anything, and that’s pretty literal, and we put it in one space. We teach anybody how to use any of the tools and then we allow them to use them, however they want to build whatever they want.”

Cheyney, an Iowa City native and University of Iowa graduate, is working with Iowa City Marketplace officials to bring the first MIT Style Fab Lab to the state. Cheyney said he plans to open the Fab Lab — which will take up 17,000 square feet of the former Von Maur location in the former Sycamore Mall — this May.

Membership applications and equipment donations are now being accepted and Cheyney said although a lease hasn’t yet been drafted, he has signed an agreement with Iowa City Marketplace officials.

But some details still need to be worked out before Cheyney’s Fab Lab comes to fruition, Iowa City Marketplace Vice President John Arlotti said.

The first is finding another tenant to fill up the remaining 25,000 square feet of former Von Maur space.

“We have a number of prospective tenants now,” Arlotti said. “Everyone we’re talking to would be retail.”

Arlotti said he estimates an opening date for the Fab Lab to be closer to late summer.

Depending on what sort of equipment will be in the Fab Lab, the site may require rezoning from current commercial retail status, said Jeff Davidson, Iowa City planning and community development director.

“Until we know exactly what it is he’s going to be doing, we’re not exactly sure what kind of amendments we would need,” Davidson said. “We’re always willing to take a look at things. We need to know more specifically what they plan to do before we can do that.”

Davidson said amendments to commercial retail zoning would require Iowa City Council approval and would apply to all similarly-zoned areas, but would be more appealing than spot zoning, or changing the zone specifically to meet Fab Lab’s needs.

While formal zoning conversations between the city and Fab Lab/Iowa City Marketplace officials have yet to take place, Davidson said the city is supportive of the Fab Lab as well as bringing tenants into the former Sycamore Mall location.

Other area businesses are also keeping an eye on Cheyney’s Fab Lab plans.

Karen Kubby, owner of downtown’s Beadology, said the Fab Lab would be a great partner for businesses such as hers, which encourage creative minds.

In theory, the Fab Lab and other area businesses would be able to share resources, co-host educational sessions and collaborate their ideas and clients.

“The Fab Lab is really about people who are makers,” she said. “It would provide different and new opportunities to people.”

Fab Lab officials are also working to partner with area schools, universities and community groups, Cheyney said.

Cheyney said Fab Lab users would pay a membership fee, like belonging to a gym. Basic users would pay $50 a month, while more extensive users would pay as much as $175 a month. Members also would be able to rent workspaces.

The Fab Lab would fit into Iowa City Marketplace’s overall goal to “de-mall” the former Sycamore Mall into more of an entertainment center with a theater, some retail and restaurants as well as fitness centers and active spaces, Arlotti said.

“It’s a little bit out of the box, but I think the demographics and people in the area would welcome that type of thing. It’s a destination for people,” Arlotti said.