MLK Extension Point-Counterpoint (revised)

The Des Moines Register recently published an editorial in part promoting the extension of Martin Luther King drive through a new I-80 interchange to Ankeny. In response, Michael Baldus of the Neighborhood and Natural Recreation Protection Project ( wrote a guest column that was published today.

Among Baldus' points was an objection to referring to the project as a "boulevard". Ironically, the Register published his letter under the headline "New north-south boulevard for Des Moines is wrong way to go"! Because nobody is really sure exactly what the impact of the new roadway would be, it really is about semantics. Will it be a tree-lined boulevard or a highway to hell?

To a large extent, the project faces an uphill PR battle in relation to City of Des Moines residents. It's likely, however, that the decision will come from above, making such a battle eminently winnable considering the deep pockets and relative influence of Polk County, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, and the Metropolitan Planning Organization. Given the backers' power in this struggle, the groups fighting the project must remain vigilant. This is the type of negotiation that is made in private conversation. By the time it is reported in the papers, it could be a done deal.

Supporters are spinning this as a project to promote "development" of the city. In a 2009 Business Record article, Larry Land, Polk County's director of public works, was quoted as saying:

Des Moines will see the same benefits of economic growth because it will allow for people in the northern and southern suburbs to have easier access to downtown.

Unfortunately, we know that building roads to facilitate easy automobile access from suburbs to downtown does not "promote development" in the central city, it subsidizes suburban construction. Here are some things we do know promote development:

  • Streetcars
  • Historic tax credits
  • Low Income Housing Tax Credits
  • Physical and cultural public amenities
  • Technology infrastructure
  • Excellent schools
  • Positive perception

Cities, including Des Moines, must stop attempting to compete with the suburbs by remaking themselves into suburbs! It is simply not possible. Doing so is a double defeat: it will never be as successful, and in the process it destroys those elements that make a city work as a city. The way to promote development in cities is to capitalize on those things that cities are great a providing (density, intensity, connection, transit, diversity, economic growth).

The suburban model is built on free parking, separate use zones, and uniformity. A city attempting to compete against the suburbs to provide these things will never win.


I find this fascinating. This is not the first time this has been proposed and it makes logistical sense. The last time it was defeated by the protected wildlife area that it would destroy. One more point is that it is unnecesary. 2nd Ave already does this. Directly to downtown from Ankeny.

Danelle Stamps | Jun 29th, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Thanks for reading, Danelle.

Yes, creating this throughway has been apparently been attempted several times before. Excellent point about 2nd Avenue. I wonder if there isn't some sort of a middle ground that would involve infrastructure improvements to 2nd Avenue rather than slicing a new elevated road through wetlands and a connector through an urban neighborhood.

Perhaps it could be a "simple" as timed lights to reduce stopping and accelerating during rush hours. That would certainly cost a lot less than a new elevated roadway. Another idea might be an Ankeny "Park 'n Ride" station with express buses in the morning and evening. On second through, that would probably go over like a ton of bricks.

DMPerspective | Jun 29th, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Honestly, with every flood we have habitat that gets destroyed and recreated each time. I don't understand the major difficulty in building this road. I live in the Lower Beaver neighborhood, and the benefit of decreased traffic in and around my neighborhood would be a very welcome thing. Commuters get rerouted around my neighborhood to get to their end destination to the north suburbs. I for one embrace this road. It makes perfect since to me and would allow for less congestion.

Troy | Sep 17th, 2010 at 2:14 pm


First of all, thanks for reading and responding to this post.

While some of the opponents cite the loss of wetlands as a major concern, my major concerns are what happens to the existing neighborhoods on either side of the proposed throughway once it enters the city, and the flawed idea that cutting transportation corridors from downtowns to the suburbs will somehow benefit the City. I submit that there are less "invasive" ways of improving traffic flow within the existing grid that could be incorporated into several north-south streets - without negatively impacting the surrounding neighborhoods.

The "traffic should be rerouted to other people's streets away from my house" argument is a non-starter. Pushing problems to someone else's neighborhood is not a solution to the problem, it's a relocation of the problem.

DMPerspective | Sep 18th, 2010 at 8:22 pm

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