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A conversation with Preston Daniels


Downtown development has been an issue that has both inspired and frustrated Des Moines Mayor Preston Daniels during his seven-plus years in office. As he approaches retirement from city government in January, Daniels talked with the Business Record about some of the successes and disappointments in downtown development.

Q: Give us a quick “state of the downtown” assessment.

A: If you look at Des Moines historically, there hasn’t been a time that it’s been this vibrant, unless you go back to the ’20s, or for a brief time in the ’50s. I think that’s pretty exciting.

Q: What’s been your greatest frustration?

A: Getting developers to come in and want to develop downtown housing, retail and low-density commercial. That’s been a challenge. We’ve always had people who are really expert at doing suburban development – I call it “cornfield development,” where it’s easier and cheaper to build. They’ve always asked for subsidies of $40,000 to $45,000 per unit of housing.

Q: Are the subsidies becoming a thing of the past?

A: Now, with the new Court Avenue Housing Investment Fund LLC, we’re getting many more proposals, and they’re not asking for these huge subsidies. They ask for assistance, but it’s generally for infrastructure, streetscape, lighting and some abatement. That [CAHI] partnership forced them to go out and find other financing. Lander-Sherman, for example, used 12 financial instruments for the Vine Street Lofts and Waterstreet Brownstones projects. Those tools have always been available, if you know about them and if you’ve worked with them, but local developers tend to think market-rate housing, and they don’t think about medium- or lower-income housing that utilize those dollar streams. It’s raised the bar for local developers.

Q: What factors limit more progress downtown?

A: People in this community can have pride, and that’s still something that’s lacking. Maybe it’s an Iowa trait. We shouldn’t be ashamed to say, “This is a great community to have a family, raise children and get a wonderful education in.” Some folks in the media have a desire to degenerate and always find something negative. The positives outweigh the negatives 90 percent to 10 percent, and you have to hunt to find things to complain about.

Q: But with the city’s latest budget crisis, are there greater priorities than stimulating downtown development?

A: Truth be told, if you stop development and building for the future, you won’t have to worry about streets and roads and police and fire, because there won’t be anyone in town to utilize them. Development is the only product the city truly has to produce revenue, create jobs and create a larger tax base.   

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