Re-Remaking Downtown Des Moines

05 Dec 2008

Over at the Living Downtown Des Moines blog (quickly becoming my favorite DM blog), Larry Bradshaw writes about his vision of Downtown DM as a retail destination. "Imagine what our downtown could look in a few years, if this economy would do a 180," he writes.

Larry throws out a few interesting possibilities as examples of rethinking the suburban retail mall model of development: Gap, Target, and Apple. All of the examples he shows are storefront retail projects on urban streets.

Court Avenue at 3rdCourt Avenue at 3rdInterestingly, he introduces his vision with the idea that the economy is the driving force. It is clear that retail stores in general will be putting their energy into survival during the coming months and years. Let me suggest, however, that the economy is not actually the reason we don't see retail like this in the core downtown. Greater Des Moines has all of these stores, and none of them have chosen to locate within (or even close to) the core downtown. The reasons are several:

  1. Land is cheap - In a relatively small metropolitan area surrounded by farm land, large-scale retail development is less expensive on the fringe, in the form of a mall.
  2. Gas is cheap - Even at the peak price a few months ago, gasoline was still comparatively inexpensive. When gas is cheap and land is cheap, Americans demand free parking that is difficult to provide in an urban setting.
  3. Perception - True or not, some people perceive downtown as unsafe at night.
  4. Use - Most of the core downtown uses are office without street level retail, particularly on the west side of downtown. When the office workers clear out for the day, the street becomes unoccupied (see #3). I think the development progression will have to place residential and entertainment before retail. Once the streets are reactivated with residents and evening visitors, retail will come.
  5. Local Planning - The only way core downtown will attract a "destination" store is to redevelop a vigorous street level pedestrian environment (see #4). The best way of encouraging this would be through local zoning and planning.
  6. Regional Planning - Local governments fight each other for commercial development by offering tax incentives to lure businesses away from adjacent municipalities. Without strong, progressive regional planning that forces local governments to stop cannibalizing each others' tax base, gains in one area will be offset by losses in another.

I suggest putting effort into continued (re)development of those things that differentiate downtown Des Moines from the suburbs: a generally pleasant riverfront, diverse residential options, a robust non-car transportation network (buses, trolleys, bike paths, sidewalks, etc), and density of use.

I don't think it is likely that there will ever be an Apple flagship store in downtown Des Moines, but it certainly is a wonderful goal to shoot for. If we work to create an environment conducive to attracting such a store, the name of the store doesn't actually matter. It is, in fact, such an active, vibrant mixed-use environment that is the fundamental goal!