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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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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Today marks a decision point in the fate of cities. The two candidates for President of the United States present starkly different views on urbanism and the role of government in promoting sustainable development.

Which Romney to Trust

Throughout his decade-long pursuit of the White House, Mitt Romney has consistently advocated for a "devolved" government - moving responsibility for decision-making and service provision from the federal government to the states and to the private sector. No doubt, there are certainly policies that are best decided at a lower level. Too much proscriptive regulation and funding restriction at the Federal level can diminish innovation.

While his governing tenure in Massachusetts indicates a willingness to explore urban policy and sustainability, his long-term campaign rhetoric says otherwise... the question is which one would occupy the Oval Office? I think it is safe to assume that we would see much more of Candidate Romney than Governor Romney. There would be much more pressure from the right, and Romney has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to fold to such pressure (case in point: the hard right turn he took in the Republican primary season).

I fear the Tea Party wing will not let him reset the Etch-a-Sketch.

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Thanksgiving weekend, dedicated bus traffic that has for decades sapped the vitality of a major downtown street, will relocate to the relatively unused Cherry Street two blocks south.

As the new DART transfer station nears completion, the powers that be are promoting potential changes on the soon-to-be-abandoned Walnut Street Experiment (worst band name ever). The City, Downtown Community Alliance, Downtown Neighborhood Association, and local business leaders have been engaged in planning for redevelopment of Walnut Street for some time (utilizing the services, of course, of the ubiquitous Mario Gandalsonas).

Juice has initiated a series looking at the future of Des Moines - starting off with redevelopment of Walnut Street. For some reason Juice, the Register's weekly free supplement dedicated to the young professional demographic, is leading the "re-imagine Walnut Street" publicity charge. (Of course, it is followed in this week's publication by an article on how to rock your look with patterned leggings.) Interestingly, Juice wears the "redevelopment guru" mantle well, with regular feature stories on urban design, government, and planning policy. They do a great job of digging in to the issues in a thoughtful and nuanced way (if necessarily focused on their 25-34 demographic).

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Firehouse #1

The Des Moines Social Club has been working energetically and tirelessly to acquire permanent digs by purchasing and rehabilitating the incredible mid-century modern "Firehouse #1" building in downtown Des Moines. The arts group proposes to turn the building into a multi-use theater-dining-arts-retail-nonprofit-community complex.

(Look at all those happy and interesting people hanging out downtown at night! Image source: Des Moines Social Club)

Development work is proceeding at a breakneck speed. On October 22, the City Council again heard testimony on the proposed sale of the building to the Des Moines Social Club - for $600,000! The group is working through the process of nominating the structure to the National Register of Historic Places, assisted by local historian Jennifer James. I love to see significant mid-century buildings start to appear on the list and am a big fan of preserving such buildings (though not everyone thinks it is appropriate). To its credit, the Council required such action!

From the Council communication:

Developer must agree to preserve the exteriors of the two buildings and to nominate the property to the National register of Historic Places and or to the City of Des Moines Local Landmarks listing.

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Whole Foods Competition

Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are squeezing the upscale/prepared food market a little tighter according to a Business Journal article this past week. It is reported that Whole Foods may be already eying expansion to an additional location. Is Whole Foods the WalMart of organic?

While I appreciate the "buy local" philosophy, I am not a fanatic (I am a Costco member). Yet I continue to resist shopping at either Whole Foods or Trader Joe's - there's just no need. I continue to make at least a weekly stop at Gateway. Gateway Market is one local business I unequivocally support!

I'll see you at Gateway at least every Tuesday for "kids eat free" night!

Ingersoll/MLK Intersection

Moving the conversation just down the street from Gateway, let's contine the exploration of Ingersoll improvements from last week. Finishing touches are now being put on the soon-to-be operational storefront retail strip on Ingersoll east of MLK.

Ingersoll Retail Strip Under ConstructionIngersoll Retail Strip Under Construction

Compared to the retail strip across MLK, this one is fresh, creative, and engaging - a true presence on Ingersoll. Utilizing contemporary materials such as galvanized steel for the sunshades and corrugated metal cladding, this building capitalizes on the energy a new development in a prominent location can bring to a district. I do worry a bit about how the sheet metal on the "marquee" volumes at the east and west corners of the building will fare over time.

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Greystone Homes Start Construction

New construction homes have started to pop up along MLK and scattered throughout the adjacent neighborhoods just north of Downtown. This is a great sign for the City - I am excited to see investment in non-Habitat infill construction (even thought it is subsidized as well) because it demonstrates an expanding market.

Hatch Development Group is building 26 "Des Moines Greystones" on scattered infill sites. Here's what they will look like:

Des Moines Greystones, Hatch Development GroupDes Moines Greystones, Hatch Development Group

I'm not convinced that the design is appropriate for the locations. They are attempting to "import" the idea of the appearance of a Chicago greystone to a location that doesn't really support it. Here are some photos of infill Chicago "greystones" I took on a trip to Chicago several years ago:

Chicago Infill Housing

Not all of these are great design, but the Chicago greystone home type is a part of the context and underlying neighborhood development pattern there... density, material compatibility, consistent massing - these all create an understanding of why the buildings take the form that they do.

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It's Quite the Gamble...

Proposed Casino LocationProposed Casino LocationCasino owners Gary Kirke and Mike Richards recently put an option on an 85 acre piece of land north of 80/35 at 100th Street in Urbandale... and then quickly withdrew it. They proposed to develop on this 85 acre site a craptastical casino-dining-entertainment-bowling-hotel-conference-center extravaganza. This would have been a structure almost as big as the new Urbandale Hy-Vee. Perhaps they should have considered adding a grocery store to the plans.

The project would have required approval of the Urbandale City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission. My guess is that they faced stiff opposition from City staff and politicians and, well, everyone living in the subdivisions just north of the proposed site. Indeed, I lost a potential bathroom remodel client in part over concern about investing in a house so close to a proposed casino.

The site doesn't currently have direct Interstate access... Yet. Polk County Public Works website outlines a $21m plan to construct an interchange at 100th Street, scheduled to start in 2008. Clearly, that project is, um, behind schedule. Wouldn't it be great to control the land around it when the interchange does eventually get built. And it will.

In the meantime, my best guess is that a similar proposal will reappear, sans casino, some time soon.

With the disappearance of this proposal, you can feel free to invest in Prairie Meadows again. If Branstad's "education plan" is implemented, perhaps there will be enough suckers to support two Des Moines casinos. In the meantime, I suggest adding classes in probability and statistics to the high school curriculum...

Pecha What?

Q: So what do the intelligentsia do for fun on a Friday night?

A: They listen to each other talk at Pecha Kucha (pronounced "peCHA kuCHA" because it's Japanese).

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TEDx Des Moines

26 Sep 2012

I ran into the always energetic Alexander Grugrich yesterday (at Mars Cafe, of course). Among the other items in our conversation, he reminded me that the next installment of TEDx Des Moines is coming up on October 13th!

The theme will be "The City 2.0" and booked speakers at the day-long event include:

  • Former Des Moines visionary and architect Jeffrey Morgan,
  • Developer and contractor Mike Nelson, and
  • Sustainability expert and local go-getter Suzet Nelson many more.

I won't be able to attend so y'all have to represent. This is an event not worth missing. It's not just about the speakers, though they form the foundation from which the event springs. TED is really about engagement and inspiration. If you go, use the speakers as a tool for engaging your fellow attendees. You will be with interesting and innovative people all day - don't waste the opportunity!

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