development

On October 2, 2014, Jack Porter submitted documentation to the Plan and Zoning Commission to designate the former Downtown YMCA building as a local landmark. City staff recommended denial of the application. The Plan and Zoning Commission voted accordingly.

The City staff recommendation was a disappointing demonstration in historic preservation understanding. While claiming to strike a "balance," they built up a straw man conflict between historic preservation and economic development - and then proceeded to demolish it. All without honestly responding to the question at hand: is the Riverfront YMCA building architecturally and historically significant?

Staff recommends that the “Riverfront YMCA” building at 101 Locust Street not be designated as a local Landmark.

Downtown 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.Downtown 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.Sure, why is that?

While the building may be eligible for designation, staff believes that the site is the most important feature in light of numerous plans and implementation activities.

Translation: "We've had conversations with people who have lots of money and want a vacant piece of riverfront property. So, even though the building meets the requirements for historical and architectural significance, we're going to go ahead and go with the money."

The overall interest of the City is to insure that development of the site is maximized from an economic and aesthetic standpoint regardless of whether the building is saved or demolished.

Translation: "We don't really know yet what will go in place of the historic building, and honestly don't really care, but we'll just keep going with the money for now. You've heard the saying, 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,' right?"

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The image below shows a potential pedestrian-oriented site plan at 31st and Ingersoll that accommodates a building the size of a typical "The Fresh Market" (Fresh Market website) (21,000 square feet, indicated as a hatched square). Upon first glance at the zoning code, in the NPC, a building this size and use requires about 65 parking spaces and two off-street loading docks. Additional parking would be required if there is a second floor with office or residential.

I've subdivided the site into approximate zones that make sense from a pedestrian-oriented redevelopment strategy.

  1. Primary street-facing facades along Ingersoll along the sidewalk
  2. Parking in the rear, accessed from 31st
  3. Loading accessed from 31st
  4. Secondary vehicle access from Ingersoll
  5. Residential redevelopment at location of demolished houses
  6. Buffer between denser development/parking and adjacent residential on the north and west

"Charette" Sketch of Pedestrian-Oriented Development: This sketch is a 4-minute "charette" showing one way of laying out the new development at 31st and Ingersoll in a pedestrian-oriented manner.  It is not based on any actual discussion with the developer, nor a thorough review of the applicable zoning and building codes.  However, it can give a general sense of priorities as we seek to enhance the established Neighborhood Pedestrian Commercial district."Charette" Sketch of Pedestrian-Oriented Development: This sketch is a 4-minute "charette" showing one way of laying out the new development at 31st and Ingersoll in a pedestrian-oriented manner. It is not based on any actual discussion with the developer, nor a thorough review of the applicable zoning and building codes. However, it can give a general sense of priorities as we seek to enhance the established Neighborhood Pedestrian Commercial district.

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I had a fantastic and far ranging conversation with a fellow design professional this afternoon, sparked by the demolition of six historic homes on 31st Street just a couple days ago. One of the things we talked about was a disconnect between preservation professionals and developers who want to work in urban neighborhoods (specifically older established neighborhoods).

Sometimes despite a general desire to "do the right thing," they end up on the wrong side of the argument. Having worked on all phases of the development process (from land assembly, planning, and zoning to design, financing, and construction), I can identify with the need to be selective about sharing information publicly until the project is ready. Most developers working in older urban areas, however, tend to take this too far - holding their cards too close to their vest will breed distrust and antipathy from concerned neighbors and organizations. It sets up a needless climate of conflict.

Here is a brief overview of how to include preservation in the development planning process: Engage, Evaluate, Execute.

Historic Preservation Planning for Developers - Engage, Evaluate, ExecuteHistoric Preservation Planning for Developers - Engage, Evaluate, Execute

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In 1950, Hud and Ellen Weeks purchased land from Hud’s parents to build a home for their growing family. An otherwise unremarkable story might have ended there but for two things: Hud was the son of Des Moines makeup magnate Carl Weeks, and the parcel they purchased was carved from the Salisbury House grounds, Hud and Ellen Weeks Home - Double Lustron KitchenHud and Ellen Weeks Home - Double Lustron Kitchennow a national landmark and museum. On this historic site, Hud and Ellen commissioned a unique modern dwelling comprised of two “Lustron” ready-to-assemble steel home kits built around a central atrium. Only about 2,000 Lustrons remain in the world today. The double Lustron home was significant architecturally due to its distinctive design and historically because of its association with an influential Des Moines family.

On a chilly February morning in 2013, Salisbury House staff arrived to find massive machines tearing into the enameled steel-cladding of Hud and Ellen Weeks’ former home. A developer had purchased the lot and proceeded with demolition. Historians had no chance to document or reclaim any portion of the structure for study or reuse. This story is playing out today with the demolition of three century-old buildings for expansion of the EMC Insurance Companies in downtown Des Moines.

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Last week I helped present a forum on historic preservation. Titled "Pragmatic Preservation," the underlying goal was to help promote a climate where developers and preservationists could find common ground. The panel included people with practical experience on both sides. Issues and current events were debated in a civil and, well, pragmatic discussion. I walked away from the event with practical ideas and the general feeling that perhaps there was a way to negotiate an honest if uneasy truce.

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In response to last week's Perspective, a reader posted the following comment:

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.

CVS has been working for some time to assemble land and push through the zoning and permitting process for constructing a new store (the first CVS in Des Moines) on Euclid between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.

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YMCA Swap

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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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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The Des Moines City Council is deciding whether or not to continue offering tax abatement to new construction and renovation in targeted areas of the City.

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Gentrification

09 Aug 2011

The term "gentrification" carries with it a substantial cargo of economic, social, and racial baggage. In general, it is a pejorative and Completed renovation of a vacant homeCompleted renovation of a vacant homeloaded word used to describe what might otherwise be seen as positive changes in a challenged neighborhood: increased investment in homes and influx of middle-class and wealthy occupants.

The negative aspect of gentrification is, of course, "displacement"

The Displacement Dilemma

In order to be adequately parsed, displacement due to gentrification must be subdivided into several categories:

  1. Displacement of homeowners due to rising property values - As properties are renovated, rising property values may impact long-term homeowners on fixed incomes who find themselves unable to keep up with property taxes.
  2. Displacement of renters due to rising rents - Increased property values, more desirable properties, and increased competition may lead to rent increases that existing tenants cannot accommodate.
  3. Displacement of minorities due to changing neighborhood demographics - Racial, religious, and social minorities may feel excluded or unwelcome in their own neighborhoods as the population demographics change.
  4. Displacement of poor families due to changes in available goods and services - As neighborhood economics change, so change the types of stores and services available to neighborhood residents.
  5. Displacement of criminals due to increased crime reporting and police response - With wealth comes political power, including the ability to do things like hire private security and influence resource allocation.

Clearly some of these categories are neutral, some good, and some negative. For example it may benefit one neighborhood to push criminal activity elsewhere, but unless the underlying issues are dealt with, it is a zero-sum game. Some other, less fortunate neighborhood will see an increase in crime.

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