The Elbert Files: Failed downtown plan set the stage
Friday, October 11, 2013 7:00 AM
The 1960s was a lost decade for Des Moines. That realization struck me as I researched the history of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, which marks its 125th anniversary this year.
The decade began quietly, with growing numbers of World War II veterans moving to the suburbs and shopping malls following them.
It ended violently, with anti-war bombings in the spring of 1970 at the Des Moines police station and the Chamber of Commerce building at Eighth and High streets.
The most lasting accomplishment of the 1960s was the building of Interstate 235 through Des Moines, while the enduring memory for many was the racial unrest and war protests.
The decade coincided with leadership transitions. At the national level, 1960 was the first time we elected a president who had been born in the 20th century. In Des Moines, an era of strong local leadership had ended with the death in 1950 of John MacVicar Jr. His father, John Sr., had been elected mayor four times, while John Jr. had served three terms.
More important, local business leadership was also changing. By the late 1950s, civic vision and influence was in decline for the families of the city’s two most prominent businessmen of the first half of the 20th century, F.M. Hubbell and Gardner Cowles.
Future leaders, including John Ruan and Bill Knapp, were busy making their own fortunes during the 1950s and 1960s and would not move into community leadership roles until the 1970s.
As the 1950s ended, the one constant in Des Moines was John D. Adams, executive secretary of the chamber of commerce. I wrote about Adams’ career and achievements in my May 10 column. What I did not mention was the Bartholomew Plan of 1960.
The Bartholomew Plan was a vision plan that capped Adams’ 36 years at the chamber. It envisioned skywalks, parks and a lot of other things that eventually found their way into downtown. But in its day, it was judged a failure.
The $75,000 plan was the creation of Harland Bartholomew of St. Louis, a consultant who is considered the father of modern city planning. Bartholomew had previously created comprehensive plans for Des Moines in 1926 and 1940, and he had laid out the city’s schools and parks in 1929.
The plan was unveiled on the front page of the Des Moines Tribune on Dec. 5, 1960. It had a 20-year time frame. Implementation was expected to cost $300 million, or $2.36 billion in 2013 dollars. Features included a nine-square-block pedestrian island in the downtown core, a pedestrian mall in what is now the East Village, a Rockefeller Center-like project along Seventh Street where the Ruan Center, Hub Tower and Financial Center now stand, new freeways, new offices for city and county government in a high-rise tower, a new downtown hotel, new commercial and residential buildings and so on.
A key aspect of the plan was to move parking out of the downtown core by creating a ring of parking garages on the periphery of downtown.
Not long after the plan was approved, an unexpected chance to implement it occurred when a parking garage on Grand Avenue behind Younkers department store was severely damaged in a fire.
Instead of moving the garage a few blocks to the south, as the plan recommended, a new and bigger garage was built on the same location.
After that, no one paid much attention to the Bartholomew Plan, although many of its more progressive aspects were revived 30 years later in the Des Moines Vision Plan, which became the driving force for what is today the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, the Principal Riverwalk, the East Village and the resurgence of downtown housing.
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