Capital Crossroads: Capital Core
Friday, June 15, 2012 7:00 AM
Meet the co-chairs
Principal Financial Group Inc.
"Twenty years ago when the Des Moines Vision Plan was done, there was a line in there that said you don’t need an airtight plan, you need moments of brilliance. Des Moines has exploded over the last decade or so with moments of brilliance.”
Des Moines City Manager
"The (transit) mall was put in to help the bus system but also as a way to bring more activity and retail to Walnut Street. It worked really well as a transportation hub, but has had a negative impact on the creation of an active retail, pedestrian-oriented environment.”
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Editor’s Note: The Business Record asked Capital Core committee co-chairs Rick Clark and Mary O’Keefe to talk about the challenges facing their committee and to discuss areas that are triggers for the city’s economic, social and cultural growth, all with a focus on downtown, the core of the core. In a later issue, the Business Record will take a look at the neighborhood component of Capital Core.
What is Capital Crossroads:
Capital Crossroads is a regional planning effort headed up by leaders in Greater Des Moines and surrounding communities.
What is the Capital Core component of Capital Crossroads?
Capital Core refers to the city of Des Moines, its downtown commercial and residential areas and the city’s neighborhoods, which are the “key to its survival and revival.” The plan aims to correct downtown deficiencies, such as its glut of vacant office space in aging buildings, and aims to improve neighborhoods by focusing on “catalysts”around which neighborhood planning can occur. It also stresses taking a regional approach to meeting challenges faced by the city and Central Iowa.
Clark, the Des Moines city manager, and O’Keefe, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Principal Financial Group Inc., have seen a visioning plan or two during their years in Des Moines – Clark went to work for the city in 1973; O’Keefe joined Principal in 1990.
“Twenty years ago when the Des Moines Vision Plan was done, there was a line in there that said you don’t need an airtight plan, you need moments of brilliance,” O’Keefe said. “Des Moines has exploded over the last decade or so with moments of brilliance.”
Now the two are aiming to have moments of brilliance of their own as they aim to improve the Capital Core of Des Moines, which is vital for the broader region according to the Capital Crossroads report.
“Throughout the Capital Crossroads process, two common themes from the data research and public input were the diverging demographic and socioeconomic trends in the City of Des Moines versus the broader region coupled with the need to ensure that the ‘core city’ remains strong to bolster the overall welfare of Greater Des Moines and Central Iowa,” according to the Capital Crossroads report.
Among the items mentioned for attention in the Capital Core document are the Walnut Street Transit Mall and the downtown skywalk system.
Both are among the “handful of subject areas that we’re in the process of being more definitive on,” Clark said.
With construction well under way on the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority’s new $20 million transit hub at Cherry Street and Sixth Avenue, there are plans to return Walnut Street to a retail-friendly strip that accommodate foot and vehicle traffic, the kind that will rekindle activity in buildings that are experiencing vacancies, such as the Kaleidoscope at the Hub.
“The mall was put in to help the bus system but also as a way to bring more activity and retail to Walnut Street,” Clark said. “It worked really well as a transportation hub, but has had a negative impact on the creation of an active retail, pedestrian-oriented environment.”
O’Keefe said the rejuvenation of Walnut and changes for the skywalk system are among the areas of “hard economic development” that the Capital Core committee is considering.
“It’s a great system, it still functions well, but it’s beginning to show signs of age,” Clark said.
Much of what is wrong with the skywalk system is cosmetic – Principal is donating unused carpet squares to spruce up one section, for example. Windows and roofing need to be examined. The big hindrance to moving people from street level to skywalk level is that some entrances to the skywalk system are difficult to find. Planners want well-marked, attractive “vertical connections,” Clark said.
“This whole idea of connection between the street and skywalk is just an obvious call,” he said.
With the proliferation of public art downtown and in Greater Des Moines, O’Keefe likes the idea of featuring some in the skywalk, and that could include graffiti that would be submitted for approval. “Just think of the really cool graffiti artists,” she said.
Downtown projects/issues for consideration:
• The riverfront
Clark said that with Principal’s help and leadership, the connecting links on the trails and promenades that make up the 1.2-mile loop of the Principal Riverwalk should be completed in the next year. However, he does not see riverfront development ending there. “Once the Riverwalk is completed, there are going to be other opportunities,” he said. For instance, the downtown YMCA is a prime piece of development property.
Downtown has become a strong employment center, but retailing continues to struggle, with the notable exception of the East Village, Clark said. “With the Iowa Events Center being such a wonderful draw, it seems like there is an opportunity to get hotel rooms there,” he said. In addition to the construction of new rooms, Clark said the Hotel Fort Des Moines renovation is a project “that needs to happen.”
Downtown is dominated by cars, and it could benefit from changes that include bicycle lanes, location of passenger rail with a downtown depot and a shuttle service from hotels to the Iowa Events Center.
• Rejuvenate the core
The heart of the city is changing, with some aging commercial buildings being converted to housing or to a housing, retail and office mix. That’s a good thing. However, space-gobbling tenants are few and far between.
“We don’t have people looking for big floor plates, so a lot (of the infill) has to do with smaller firms,” O’Keefe said. She is quick to point out the conversion to mixed uses that is occurring in several downtown buildings.
“We have really cool loft space that has been used for housing, for ad agencies and for architectural firms that really like the bones of a building, that see that that can be an attractive place to be,” she said.
Clark said there continues to be a need to encourage street-level activity.
• Development opportunities
Several areas “offer tremendous opportunities for enlivening downtown” and bringing unique urban experiences to the city, Clark said.
Among those are the downtown YMCA site, where proposals have swirled that involve rehabbing the structure or demolishing it. “In real estate parlance, it’s the 100 percent site,” Clark said.
Other locations include a city-owned property at Fifth and Court avenues, the former YWCA location, Riverpoint and Gray’s Landing south of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, the East Village and the Market District area near the Southeast Connector.
There is a challenge to additional build-outs downtown, and that is the difficulty in compiling individual properties that are scattered about the area.
“If want to keep downtown moving forward, land assemblage impedes that from happening,” Clark said. He proposes a private entity, possibly working with the Greater Des Moines Partnership, that could buy land and hold it for development.
Clark and O’Keefe are encouraged by the growth in downtown’s residential population, but they would like to see more. Clark said there remains a need for a mix of housing types that include rental units and condominiums at various price points. The old adage is that rooftops bring retail, and more people living downtown could spark a resurgence in retail shops, including grocery stores.
“The Major Projects Task Force in 1998 said let’s have 2,000 units downtown in the next 10 years. We have 4,600 over a longer period of time,” O’Keefe said. “There were two projects downtown at the time. Now there’s a neighborhood with 8,000 to 10,000 residents. Now it has the bookends. It has young renters and empty nesters.”