planning

Across the country, cities are looking for ways to reverse decades-old planning decisions that facilitated decline of their downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods. Some of the most brilliant and innovative projects are those that stitch together neighborhoods torn apart by the construction of interstate highways. Yes, some particularly progressive cities are actually removing interstate highways!

This approach seems counter intuitive to many people. Many Americans have grown up knowing no other option for moving people through a city or between cities. Indeed, as a means of moving a steady flow of individuals and goods across great distances to decentralized locations, the Interstate was a wonderful experiment. Intercity travel has become simple and relatively fast.

Within cities, however, we have found quite the opposite. It was assumed by early planners that adding limited access highways as another layer in a complex transportation system would facilitate easy travel. Unlike previous transportation innovations, the limited access highway has never been adequately incorporated into a healthy urban environment.

It is time to reconsider this experiment.

The Proposal

What if Des Moines were to remove I-235 from 42nd Street to East 14th? What if we converted the limited-access highway that currently divides downtown from the surrounding neighborhoods into a six-lane boulevard with integrated public transportation and lined with appropriate retail/residential and commercial development?

42nd Street marks a change in the character of the neighborhoods that surround the highway. East of 42nd, it is clear that the highway sliced through established residential neighborhoods. West of 42nd, the underlying development pattern is not disrupted to the same extent.

On the east, it is clear that any fundamental transportation planning initiative should include the Capitol complex, the river, and Downtown proper.

And yet, we should also dream big... This could be the start of a larger project to convert the highway all the way through the Fairgrounds/University exit (or beyond) on the east.

I-235 Study Area: Proposed study area for conversion from limited access interstate highway to urban boulevardI-235 Study Area: Proposed study area for conversion from limited access interstate highway to urban boulevard

The goal of this project would be three-fold:

  1. Knit Downtown and Capitol complex back into the street grid. Not only would this create additional land for residential and retail development, but would also drastically improve access into and out of downtown.
  2. Create approximately 100 prime "developable" acres in the central city. Sale of the land could top $26 million. Once built-up and after any development incentives have expired, the land could generate $6 million in annual tax revenue for the city.
  3. Promote more compact development and the opportunity to rethink underlying regional transportation strategy. Rather than continued expansion of the suburban and exurban fringe, the future will demand that we refocus on sustainable neighborhood redevelopment.
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The 6th Avenue Corridor through the River Bend and Cheatom Park Neighborhoods was named one of Iowa’s first Urban Neighborhood Districts by Main Street Iowa, a program within the Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED). IDED Director Mike Tramontina named the new designees at a ceremony on Monday at 2 p.m.

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The Iowa chapter of the American Planning Association recently honored West Des Moines for its publication of a "pattern book". Pattern Books are locally specific guidebooks detailing appropriate interventions in existing neighborhoods (both renovation and new construction). This particular book is focused on the older areas of West Des Moines. Examples used in the book are the Cape Cod, Ranch, and Split Level home.

The 45-page book is available for free on the West Des Moines web site.

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Entry to River Bend

04 Aug 2008

6th Avenue is the spine of the River Bend neighborhood. The intersection of 6th Avenue with University Avenue serves as the primary entrance to the neighborhood for much of the traffic that passes through.

6th Avenue at University: Entry to River Bend6th Avenue at University: Entry to River BendUnfortunately, this intersection is not very welcoming to either vehicles or pedestrians. It is marked by surface parking lots at the southeast and southwest corners, a Quicktrip gas station on the northeast corner, and a McDonald's drivethru (behind a three foot retaining wall) on the northwest.

This intersection actually misleads potential visitors about the neighborhood - though it cuts right through the center, there is very little on 6th Avenue that relates to the residential areas on either side. The sidewalks are pushed up against a highly traveled street (though there are curb cuts at all four corners!). None of the corners are "built" with pedestrian-oriented uses, despite the proximity to Mercy medical center that could provide a flow of pedestrians. Despite its current configuration, 6th Avenue actually has a history of pedestrian use.

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Sixth Avenue is a north-south thoroughfare forming the spine of the River Bend neighborhood. It runs more or less from downtown at the south to Interstate 80 (where it turns into NW 6th Drive). Along the way it strings together a variety of destinations including Mercy Medical Center and North High School as well as crossing I-235, University, and Euclid.

It is also, for the most part, underutilized and dreary, particularly for the pedestrian. Until now.

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