Tuesday Morning Perspective - Green Streets and Younkers

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.

In order to enhance the streetscape improvements and create a "sustainable" neighborhood pedestrian business district, it will be necessary to see the underlying zoning and use categories be addressed. The ground needs to be laid now to promote redevelopment of these properties in a pedestrian-friendly manner when the time comes.

Younkers Redevelopment

Via KCCI, good news about the historic Younkers building... perhaps things are finally moving forward again!

The Des Moines City Council approved $3 million in federal funding to convert the old Younkers building into 120 income-restricted apartments, The Des Moines Register reported. Mayor Frank Cownie, was disappointed that the project would not have any market-rate housing. The Alexander Company of Madison, Wis. will complete the renovations, which will include housing and retail space. Officials said construction should begin in April 2013 and be completed by June 2014.

Given the tight apartment market downtown, such a development will undoubtedly be successful - if they can come up with the right mix of retail, residential, and office uses. Historic tax credits will be a huge incentive in this deal... but for this incentive, many more of Iowa's incredible historic resources would meet the wrecking ball.

Remember that Historic Tax Credits are not just for $36 million projects. Individual homes in historic districts around the city qualify... I have prepared applications for home improvement projects as little as $40,000 (which can receive up to 25% back as a refundable tax credit)!


We sure could use someone like you assisting us up here in the Parks Area. 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. The area is being sold short by many of those in power, who want to see a quick fix and really have no idea of the potential that this area holds. Sure wish you were involved in the area, I lack the knowledge you have but share in your love of a stronger DSM and especially the central city portions! Thank you

Charles Lyddon | Dec 11th, 2012 at 11:30 am

Charles, thanks for reading! At the very least, that would be a great topic for a future post here.

To be quite honest, convincing box chains of any type to alter their property development formula is very difficult. The most successful instances are when the City supports (or is behind) the effort, and there are zoning regulations in place to provide "teeth" to the argument. In the absence of these, it is unlikely that neighbors will be able to exact much concession.

The City should be much more proactive about supporting redevelopment of its historic commercial areas with sensitive and pedestrian-compatible forms.

DMPerspective | Dec 11th, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Thanks for highlighting this important next step, Steve. The rendering that you show in your post is included, as you mention, in the Council approved streetscape improvement concept plan. The technical assistance from the EPA will build upon this base. You are absolutely correct that the planned improvements at this specific node are mostly cosmetic, but do make changes that significantly improve the pedestrian experience. We are planning to pursue zoning and potentially other policy changes that will guide future (re)developments at this node to be more pedestrian-scaled and character-defining. However, the streetscape will significantly enhance other sections of the Corridor (College and 6th, as an example) and introduce an environment that truly is pedestrian-scaled and conducive to supporting current developments and encouraging appropriate redevelopment. The entire process is a balancing act. The QT and McDonalds are relatively new projects within the Corridor; if I would have been around during their construction, I would have wanted to see a different design. Right now, our efforts are focused further north to ensure that we do not lose any other character-defining buildings (such as the old North Des Moines City Hall). And, if we get the streetscape and other policy decisions right, the future will see an improved 6th and University intersection when redevelopment is determined to be financially lucrative.

Charles - I've followed the CVS development minimally and reached out to the City's urban designer to see if there is a way that this proposed project could be improved. However, the most convincing voices come from those directly impacted (you and your neighbors). I would suggest that you, your neighborhood association, and any other interested persons show up at every meeting that is held (is the project required to go through Plan and Zoning Commission?) on this project to express your concerns AND offer alternatives. Perhaps the Walgrees at Ingersoll and 35th is a good model. Make sure that the elected officials know your position and remind them often. Unfortunately, in the end, if the zoning allows CVS to build as planned, there is little that you can do but it would still be worth the effort to send a signal to others (aka future developers) as to the type of (re)development desired on Euclid. Those of us working on 6th Avenue are envious of your intact buildings along Euclid and stand with you to support their rehabilitation or more appropriate redevelopment.

Aaron | Dec 11th, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Aaron... Why am I not surprised that you have already projected this game out ten moves. Remind me never to play chess with you.

In my mind, the best case scenario is a form-based overlay available for guiding redevelopment of pedestrian-oriented districts throughout the city... What do you see as the best option?

DMPerspective | Dec 11th, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Would love to see a form-based overlay for 6th Avenue. Would love your thoughts on how to drag the City of Des Moines forward on such an idea! ;-)

Aaron | Dec 13th, 2012 at 9:36 am

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