Eye-catching projects encouraged in Downtown Des Moines
Des Moines’ resurgent downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are getting a strong mix of big and small projects that will help provide momentum even as federal budget cuts slow some work, several community leaders said Tuesday.
Capital Crossroads, a coalition developing a vision for central Iowa development and quality-of-life initiatives, hosted a forum attended by 40 at DART Central Station downtown.
Mary O’Keefe, senior vice president of Principal Financial Group and one of the chief architects of the Principal Riverwalk, told the group that the city needs developments and projects that grab attention.
“You don’t just need big projects downtown, you need moments of brilliance,” O’Keefe said. “You come in from the airport, and you have Gray’s Lake and the sculpture garden and the Principal Riverwalk and the East Village. You have restaurants and nightlife. We are at the point now when we say, ‘Wow, look what we have to build with!’ ”
O’Keefe said the 1.2-mile Riverwalk spawned more than 300 nearby housing units before it opened late last year, and more are coming. The trail winding along the Des Moines River near downtown attractions is the type of project that encourages more.
On Walnut Street, the former transit mall is giving way to a modern version of the old Walnut, lined with businesses and friendly to both cars and pedestrians. Leaders are looking to bring in new retailers, Des Moines Register Media is moving into Capital Square next month and a new version of Nollen Plaza will be under construction in coming months.
“Walnut is a really fabulous opportunity,” with the possibility of high-tech electronic displays and sidewalk cafes where people can do business over coffee, O’Keefe added.
More retail is crucial. “Housing is constantly being reinvented, but how do we get retail?” O’Keefe asked. “There are 75,000 workers downtown. They are going to have needs.”
On the other hand, downtown needs to hold on to the Des Moines Arts Festival and the Downtown Farmers Market and other events even as some sponsors leave, O’Keefe said. “We have had sponsors pulling out of those,” O’Keefe said. “The Arts Festival is one of the top five in the country. Why would we toss that?”
Glenn Lyons, president of the Downtown Community Alliance, said sometimes even a single business can make a big difference. He marvels at the thousands who dine at Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, the creation of a partnership that includes chef George Formaro.
Developer Jake Christensen of Christensen Development said neighborhood projects are important, too. He was involved in renovated and new commercial buildings at Sixth and College avenues and Sixth and Forest avenues, and he plans a residential-and-retail building near B & B Grocery south of downtown.
Christensen said the multiparty rejuvenation of a Latino shopping area along East Grand Avenue near East 15th Street is another example of a relatively small development that made a big difference.
On the housing front, much of the attention has been on improving housing in older neighborhoods downtown. Erin Olson-Douglas of the city staff said federal budget cuts have hurt those efforts; the city once could work on five times more houses than it can now.
The city’s work on streets, curbs, gutters, and other nuts and bolts in the neighborhoods comes to $5 million to $6 million, about half of what is needed.
And that’s to say nothing of new, unfunded ideas, such as offering incentives for downtown hospital workers to live in nearby neighborhoods, Olson-Douglas said. She said she is working with a real estate agent to promote resurgent neighborhoods.
“We need to concentrate and really showcase what is here” to help install more pride in the neighborhoods, Olson-Douglas said.