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$8 million restoration planned for Argonne building on western edge of downtown Des Moines


The Argonne Apartment Building at 1723 Grand Ave. will undergo a nearly $8 million restoration beginning this fall. Photo by Kathy A. Bolten

The most frequently asked question about plans for the Argonne Apartment Building restoration is this: What will become of the billboard? 

The answer: The billboard’s structure will remain but sans advertising. Instead, the Argonne’s owner wants some type of artwork or a display that emphasizes the historic nature of the 100-year-old building.

“We think we can do something really cool, we just don’t know what that is yet,” said Jackie Nickolaus, vice president of development services at Benchmark Real Estate Group in West Des Moines.

The billboard has been on the building for about 70 years, and removing it would likely impinge on the Argonne’s historic nature, Nickolaus said. In addition, removing the heavy metal structure would be expensive, she said. 

Joe Cordaro, principal of Benchmark Real Estate and president of Jarcor LLC, bought the Argonne in 2013 for $870,000. The structure, located at 1723 Grand Ave. on the western edge of downtown Des Moines, includes a four-story brick building and a one-story annex.

The building, which is mostly vacant, had 43 efficiency apartments and commercial retail space. 

Decades ago, the Argonne housed workers from a factory – first the Ford Assembly Plant and later the Solar Aircraft Co.  located across the street at 1800 Grand Ave. (The factory building now is home to the Des Moines school district’s Central Campus and Downtown School.)

The first floor and annex of the Argonne had retail, an auto garage and five automotive-related showrooms. The Argonne is the “last remaining building containing an auto showroom on Grand Avenue,” according to a history of the building compiled by Cordaro and Nickolaus.

In the 1920s and later, Grand Avenue was part of a “large, dense ‘auto row’ that developed as Iowa became one of the early leaders of auto sales,” according the history overview of the area.

Cordaro was working as a diplomat for the U.S. Department of State when he bought a package of properties that included the Argonne. 

“I always had plans to convert it at some point, but at the time, the Western Gateway was just getting started,” he said. So as Cordaro waited for downtown development to march westward, he continued operating the Argonne, whose efficiency apartments provided low-income housing.

In 2017, “the property became kind of impossible to manage,” Cordaro said. “We couldn’t keep it hot or cold. We decided that it was time to pull the trigger on this redevelopment.”

It took about 18 months to find housing for the Argonne’s more than 40 tenants, some of whom had lived in the building more than 15 years.

Cordaro plans an $8 million historic rehabilitation of the Argonne and its adjoining annex. 

When completed, the building will have a mix of 45 one-bedroom and studio-sized apartments, many of which will rent for less than $900 a month. Much of the first floor will be commercial, although two bays along 18th Street will be converted into six apartment units.

At least 10% of the apartments will be leased at affordable rates, and Cordaro has agreed to exceed the applicable energy code requirements.

Cordaro said he hopes to begin the restoration work by fall with a fall 2020 completion date. 

The project’s architect is Goche Inclusions; Estes Construction is its general contractor.

The project is eligible for Des Moines’ 10-year declining tax abatement. In addition, Cordaro is applying for historic tax credits. 

Carrie Kruse, Des Moines’ economic development coordinator, said the Argonne, located just north of Meredith Corp.’s campus, is in a high-profile area that has little in the way of apartments for rent.

“They don’t construct buildings like this anymore,” Kruse said. “The building is starting to show its age. If we didn’t have someone investing in it, [the Argonne] likely would not have had a future in the long term.” 

Photo caption: A historical photo of the Argonne shows the building from Grand Avenue looking to the west. The photo was provided by Joe Cordaro.

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