East Village v. West Glen: Battle of the Websites

A couple weeks ago, I was a guest on Michael Libbie's show "Insight on Business". I had a great time talking with Michael about preservation for almost an hour. One of the questions he sprung on me was a comparison between the troubled West Glen development in West Des Moines and the redevelopment of the Historic East Village neighborhood adjacent to downtown. That question sparked an idea for this blog post: a comparison of the physical characteristics between an established urban neighborhood and a new "urban" development.

Then it got really cold and snowed, so the concept morphed from a physical comparison to a conceptual comparison based on the two neighborhoods' web presence. No way I'm driving out there to take photos in this weather. Instead, I embarked on a journey through the interwebz in order to do research from the comfort of my own couch. [Note: I did actually end up getting photos yesterday because I happend to find myself near both Historic East Village and West Glen anyways.]

West Glen

West Glen is a mixed-use planned development at the Mills Civic Parkway interchange off I-80 in southwestern West Des Moines. It is currently facing substantial financial troubles due to conflicts between the owners, vacancy rates ("More West Glen troubles; bank files for foreclosure", Des Moines Register, 2/1/2011), and frustrations from some tenants over the mix of businesses.

What I ended up finding was actually quite humorous. From the West Glen leasing website:

West Glen Town Center lends itself to a variety of living options whether you crave the contemporary sophistication of distinctive floor plans or desire an urban chic approach to fit your active lifestyle.

You can't make this stuff up! I have a masters degree in architecture and I'm not sure I could even define the difference between sophisticated contemporary and urban chic. I'm quite sure that the difference doesn't qualify as "variety".

Then the next sentence:

When you live in the center of West Des Moines, you're never far from the amenities or the action.

Are you kidding me? I suppose West Glen is at the center of West Des Moines if by "center" you mean "the edge". Perhaps their PR consultant was from out of town and forgot to look at an actual map. Here is one for reference. For those of you keeping score at home, West Glen is just about as far to the southwest in West Des Moines as you can get without being in a cornfield.

View Larger Map

Historic East Village

Facing West Glen in this epic battle is Historic East Village in downtown Des Moines. Nestled in the shadow of the Capitol building, Historic East Village is an organically redeveloping urban mixed-use neighborhood with big dreams. It is much more difficult to find fault with an organically redeveloping neighborhood whose champions are tireless volunteers and business owners who dedicate their "free time" to building something valuable.

The one thing I suggest the neighborhood take from West Glen is development of a more focused message. On one hand, preservation was the catalyst that brought (and still brings) Historic East Village neighborhood activists together. Indeed the very name of they chose for the organization overtly capitalizes on the neighborhood's storied past. On the other hand, the website positions the neighborhood as eclectic and cutting edge.

Managing these dual messages is a difficult path. My suggestion would be to steal back the "eclectic urban" message from West Glen - they don't deserve it. We don't need fabricated urbanism because (1) it doesn't work, and (2) we have actual urbanism in the Historic East Village.

Final Decision

East village with a KO in the second round.

Snark aside, what we have here illustrates the primary difference between a fabricated neighborhood and a real neighborhood. West Glen is a business that needs to sell tenants and customers a vision of what the development should be. Historic East Village is a community of businesses and residents working hard to develop into what it actually can be.

This is not to say that everything is peachy in Historic East Village. Far from it. There are way too many surface parking lots in key developable locations and too many terrible infill buildings with no pedestrian relationship to the street. Yet these are solvable problems - over time as the Historic East Village community works towards implementing their urban vision, these problems can be fixed.

On the other hand, most of the fundamental problems with West Glen are not solvable.

Neighborhood Comparison Chart

Category West Glen East Village
Raison d'etre To make money for West Glen Partners Because business owners and residents want to be there
Location "Center of West Des Moines" [demonstrably false] "Near the hill of the Iowa State Capitol building" [true]
Tagline "Shop. Work. Live. Play." "Play. Dine. Shop. Explore."
Website Events Calendar Just advertisement for tenant businesses: $50 off the gown of your choice including special orders at Runway! Hmmm... no upcoming events?
Website "Current" News Last updated June 2010, when the now-closed "Ciao" restaurant was featured in Cityview. Last updated September 2010, with info about the East Village Sunday Bazaar
Beautification and Events Planning Corporate Management Non-profit neighborhood organization
Streets and sidewalks Private Public
Relationship to Businesses "Tenant" "Investor"
Minor Amusing Website Issue Possessive/plural mistake front and center on main web page... an apostrophe indicates possessive "Emerging from the east side of the Des Moines River"... like a swamp creature?
Sales Strategy Selling tenants on a vision of urbanism that doesn't exist Rebuilding actual vibrant and organic urbanism


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