downtown

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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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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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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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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Kudos to the City Council

...for upholding the Historic Preservation Commission in a dispute with heavy hitters James and Roxanne Conlin over installation of vinyl windows in a building they own that is located in a local historic district. Rumor has it they may take the issue to court. Such a waste of time and money would be a shame. I suggest they put the money they might spend on attorneys and court costs into renovating their building and complying with the local historic district ordinance.

Staff in the planning department deserve a lot of credit as well. They wrote a staff response to the Conlin appeal, and it is a great read for all preservationists and city government nerds.

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The Filling Station

Listed in the 2008 Des Moines Rehabbers Club "Most Endangered" list, the former Don's Service Station structure has been sitting on cribs in the Kathedral parking lot for four years... The Sherman Hill website now reports that it is finally scheduled to be moved to its permanent home at 18th and Crocker. For more information about the planned conversion to a teen hangout and worship center, visit the "Filling Station" website.

Downtown Development Plans...

KCCI reports that Hubbell Realty Company has initiated the public process for development incentives and zoning approvals for "Cityville", a 288-unit mixed-use complex to be built just south of downtown. Unfortunately, the available news reports were unclear which incentives are being pursued, with various references to tax abatement, loans, tax credits, grants, and tax increment financing. Surely Hubbell will negotiate with the city economic development department to hammer out the specifics - citizens need to be vigilant to ensure that we are getting a good deal.

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Via associate transportation planner Bethany Wilcoxon at the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization:

The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is pleased to announce that, effective September 1, 2011, its office will be located at 420 Watson Powell, Jr., Parkway, Suite 200 in Des Moines. The move to downtown Des Moines comes after ten years in the Merle Hay Centre in Urbandale.

File this one under "Walking the Walk" - this is great news! The new address is smack dab in the heart of downtown, where a quasi-governmental planning organization with responsibility for setting sustainable transportation policy should be located.


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Let me suggest the following as an add-on demonstration of sustainable transportation planning: How about a $150 per month incentive for each employee that commutes to work by public transportation, foot, or bike at least 15 days!

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I just returned from a fabulous summer vacation to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. While there, I spent most of my time at a cottage on the beach - however, I did get into town a couple times. Saugatuk/Douglas is a close-knit community of just a couple thousand permanent residents that balloons in the summer to tens of thousands. The towns have built for themselves a reputation as both an art and tourist destination. Having avoided the fires that swept through many midwestern towns in the 1800s, Saugatuk retains much its original historic Victorian and Queen Anne style buildings, many of which have been converted to retail shops along the main corridors.

Just a short car ride south of Saugatuk is a town of 5000 permanent residents called South Haven. This small town has a thriving district with, I daresay, more storefront retail than downtown Des Moines! How can this possibly be?

This map shows the main entry to South Haven - complete with a standard Wal Mart at the highway intersection.


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A couple weeks ago, I was a guest on Michael Libbie's show "Insight on Business". I had a great time talking with Michael about preservation for almost an hour. One of the questions he sprung on me was a comparison between the troubled West Glen development in West Des Moines and the redevelopment of the Historic East Village neighborhood adjacent to downtown. That question sparked an idea for this blog post: a comparison of the physical characteristics between an established urban neighborhood and a new "urban" development.

Then it got really cold and snowed, so the concept morphed from a physical comparison to a conceptual comparison based on the two neighborhoods' web presence. No way I'm driving out there to take photos in this weather. Instead, I embarked on a journey through the interwebz in order to do research from the comfort of my own couch. [Note: I did actually end up getting photos yesterday because I happend to find myself near both Historic East Village and West Glen anyways.]

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