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I had a fantastic and far ranging conversation with a fellow design professional this afternoon, sparked by the demolition of six historic homes on 31st Street just a couple days ago. One of the things we talked about was a disconnect between preservation professionals and developers who want to work in urban neighborhoods (specifically older established neighborhoods).

Sometimes despite a general desire to "do the right thing," they end up on the wrong side of the argument. Having worked on all phases of the development process (from land assembly, planning, and zoning to design, financing, and construction), I can identify with the need to be selective about sharing information publicly until the project is ready. Most developers working in older urban areas, however, tend to take this too far - holding their cards too close to their vest will breed distrust and antipathy from concerned neighbors and organizations. It sets up a needless climate of conflict.

Here is a brief overview of how to include preservation in the development planning process: Engage, Evaluate, Execute.

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Zoning regulations are a tool communities use to protect property values and guide future development in ways that support an established vision.

Ingersoll Avenue betweten MLK and 42nd Street is zoned "Neighborhood Pedestrian Commercial", for the most part.

Ingersoll Neighborhood Pedestrian Commercial Zoning MapIngersoll Neighborhood Pedestrian Commercial Zoning Map

The Neighborhood Pedestrian Commercial (NPC) district was established to aid in the preservation and stabilization of commercial corridors by:

  • Improving pedestrian access
  • Promoting retail density
  • Protecting the adjacent residential districts
  • Protecting the character of the district

This district type is characterized by multistory brick apartments and one- and two-story commercial buildings with multiple tenants and minimal setback from the primary commercial street. It is intended to include specialty retail and office uses that serve the adjacent residential areas as well as the entire city.

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In 1950, Hud and Ellen Weeks purchased land from Hud’s parents to build a home for their growing family. An otherwise unremarkable story might have ended there but for two things: Hud was the son of Des Moines makeup magnate Carl Weeks, and the parcel they purchased was carved from the Salisbury House grounds, Hud and Ellen Weeks Home - Double Lustron KitchenHud and Ellen Weeks Home - Double Lustron Kitchennow a national landmark and museum. On this historic site, Hud and Ellen commissioned a unique modern dwelling comprised of two “Lustron” ready-to-assemble steel home kits built around a central atrium. Only about 2,000 Lustrons remain in the world today. The double Lustron home was significant architecturally due to its distinctive design and historically because of its association with an influential Des Moines family.

On a chilly February morning in 2013, Salisbury House staff arrived to find massive machines tearing into the enameled steel-cladding of Hud and Ellen Weeks’ former home. A developer had purchased the lot and proceeded with demolition. Historians had no chance to document or reclaim any portion of the structure for study or reuse. This story is playing out today with the demolition of three century-old buildings for expansion of the EMC Insurance Companies in downtown Des Moines.

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Last week I helped present a forum on historic preservation. Titled "Pragmatic Preservation," the underlying goal was to help promote a climate where developers and preservationists could find common ground. The panel included people with practical experience on both sides. Issues and current events were debated in a civil and, well, pragmatic discussion. I walked away from the event with practical ideas and the general feeling that perhaps there was a way to negotiate an honest if uneasy truce.

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In response to last week's Perspective, a reader posted the following comment:

As you may or may not know, CVS is planning a new box store to replace the buildings on the northwest corner and when I pushed to have it built on the corner with the parking lot behind it, they balked.

CVS has been working for some time to assemble land and push through the zoning and permitting process for constructing a new store (the first CVS in Des Moines) on Euclid between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.

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Green Light for a Green Sixth Avenue

My friends in River Bend have been working diligently for several years on revitalization of the Sixth Avenue Corridor - their hard work is finally coming to fruition! The process started with organizing property owners along Sixth Avenue from the Mercy to the river to work together (no small task in and of itself). Designation as an "Main Street Urban Neighborhood District" by the Department of Economic Development qualified the organization for technical assistance and economic incentives for redevelopment.

Then came the hard work of figuring out what to do and how to pay for it.

We see the fruits of this labor in the streetscape plan (read it here: LARGE file) just approved by the City Council. The phased costs will be shared by stakeholders that include the City and the 6th Avenue Corridor organization, along with various grants.

The goal is to use streetscape improvements as a tool for revitalizing the businesses and buildings that form the backbone of the surrounding neighborhood. In addition, the EPA will provide design assistance to help the incorporate "green" strategies into the proposed streetscape plan. Early next year, a team of designers and landscape architects is scheduled to participate in a three-day design workshop.

Sixth Avenue Corridor RenderingSixth Avenue Corridor Rendering

Above is a rendering from the plan showing more pedestrian-friendly intersection at 6th and University... what you see is wider sidewalks, an expanded bus stop, street plantings, public art, and better lighting. What you don't see is a fundamental remaking of the critical node into a place that people want to be rather than want to pass through.

In their defense, they are working with established businesses at this intersection and a set of parameters that limit this particular exploration to "streetscape" improvements. On the other hand, the Grand Vision will never come about if it isn't visioned. As built, the McDonald's and Quik Trip are, at their cores, anti-pedestrian. If the desire is to bring about a neighborhood-oriented, pedestrian friendly mixed-use district with residential, retail, and office uses that will serve the surrounding area as well as draw people from a wider radius, this intersection deserves to be planned as such.

A fast-food use is not incompatible with this vision, but should be designed in such a way as to enhance the pedestrian experience rather than separate from it. A gas station use at this intersection is probably not compatible with the underlying 6th Avenue Corridor vision. Particularly if the intention is to build a better connection through to the hospital on the south side of University.

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I was fortunate to spend this past Thanksgiving in Florida - enjoying the sun, hotdogs at Doc's All American (best hot dog in America?), and of course a bit of urban analysis. Today's nugget comes from the seaside city of Delray Beach, located between Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm. Delray has expanded well beyond its pedestrian urban roots - it is difficult to build UP in Florida due to hurricaines. The downtown business district, however, is clearly thriving with what appear to be three primary business types: restaurants (drawing both regulars and tourists), arts (galleries), and tourist traps (t-shirts/tchatchkes). Between those are scattered various other service and retail businesses like real estate agencies, opthamologists, and civic. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, several blocks of side streets off the main drag were closed off to traffic for a massive art fair. A regular farmers market set up shop in the park outside our hotel as well.

Delray Beach Streetscape: Note the drive lanes separated from pedestrians by a row of parked cars, a tree row, and canopies at most stores work together to create a comfortable pedestrian environmentDelray Beach Streetscape: Note the drive lanes separated from pedestrians by a row of parked cars, a tree row, and canopies at most stores work together to create a comfortable pedestrian environment

But what I really want to write about today is the little things. Like this:

Whimsical Bike Rack: Whimsical bike rack serves double duty as a play structure when not being used for its "intended" purpose.Whimsical Bike Rack: Whimsical bike rack serves double duty as a play structure when not being used for its "intended" purpose.

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It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like...

Christmas DecorationsChristmas. The Thanksgiving Turkey is still cooling in the refrigerator. Family and visitors have returned to their planet of origin. We have officially entered the Christmas Season.

Let's start out with a greeting to my friends who celebrate this holiday: Merry Christmas. As a person who does not celebrate Christmas, I am not offended in the least by similar greetings issued to me. I suppose at the very least, one can revel in the spirit of the sentiment.

I also enjoy the light displays that explode on people's lawns. Not the ones where an inflatable army invades and camps out for two months. No, I like the ones where people put thought into using light and greenery to tastefully accent landscaping and historic architecture. (Call my friends at Loki's Garden for a holiday lighting consult if you think you might not be able to pull it off on your own).

Indeed, personal expression helps to liven up urban areas - if you want to experience some unique and beautiful displays, take a drive not through the ridiculously heavy-handed Water Works park, but rather through the Beaverdale, South of Grand, Sherman Hill and Terrace Hill neighborhoods. And neighborhood light tours are FREE.

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YMCA Swap

Polk County, Wellmark, and the YMCA are inking a major land swap deal designed to return several vacant downtown buildings to use (reported in the Register). A letter of intent indicates that Wellmark under this deal, Wellmark would trade the former Penny's building at 222 Fifth for the Polk County Convention Complex and $500,000 cash - followed immediately by purchase of the Convention Complex by the YMCA.

Seems to be a good deal for the former Penny's and Polk County Convention Center buildings... Not so sure about the Riverfront YMCA building that will likely be abandoned as part of the Y's relocation. In the Register article, Councilmember Christine Hensley was quoted as saying, "“I think that’s a great piece of land."

Um... There is actually a building on that land. An architecturally significant building.

Downtown YMCA BuildingDowntown YMCA Building

Designed by William Wagner of the noted Des Moines architectural firm Wetherell & Harrison, the YMCA (1957-60) is one of the city’s largest and most important examples of International Style architecture. The building is composed of an eight-story residential tower facing the Des Moines River and a lower section containing community rooms, auditorium, natatorium and other public facilities. Not to mention the public art facade and iconic signage.

It would be a shame to lose this substantial and unique building as part of whatever "development" is envisioned by the City. This building is officially considered endangered.

Winter Downtown Farmers Market

Farmers Market Corn: Image Source: Wikimedia CommonsDuring the uncomfortable winter months, the Downtown Farmers Market shifts to a more hospitable location in the Capital Square building. With one weekend down and one more scheduled for December 14/15, you can still seek out locally produced foods and crafts before the winter holiday season. Of course, the fresh fruits and veggies have largely disappeared... most winter vendors are selling things like locally produced honey, jams, salsa, wine, cheese, soy nuts, homemade noodles, baked breads, pies and cinnamon rolls. There will also still be locally produced eggs and meats as well as winter plants and crafts.

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Several weeks ago, Juice published an article about the redevelopment of Walnut Street as a pedestrian entertainment and retail district.

"It has to be urban. It has to be sophisticated, but it has to be cool - cool in a gritty way," said Glen Lyons, president and CEO of the Downtown Community Alliance. I totally agree. Cities need to capitalize on what makes then different from the suburbs in order to succeed.

Where we depart is our understanding of how "cool in a gritty way" is created. I believe it takes gritty people making gritty things to create that cool... it can't be manufactured authentically by out-of-town consultants. It develops organically in places and spaces that are not inherently cool.

Case in point: the City Museum in St. Louis.

City Museum (St. Louis)

Created by a renegade sculptor (who incidentally passed away a couple years ago while working on his next massive project), the City Museum started as an unsanctioned project in a vacant 10-story warehouse north of the just-burgeoning loft district on Washington Avenue. The artist community that developed around this project has transformed the structure piece by piece into a massive and, well, gritty entertainment venue complete with 10-story slide, a bus and an airplane cantilevered over pedestrians below, a circus, and a 100-foot whale made out of concrete.

The Whale - Undersea at the City MuseumThe Whale - Undersea at the City Museum

Outdoor Steel Climbing Structure: Now THAT is "gritty".Outdoor Steel Climbing Structure: Now THAT is "gritty".

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