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A year of construction in Des Moines, suburbs


From the beginning of 2004 until the end, making your way around downtown Des Moines was like living in the midst of a major home remodeling project.

Instead of walking around buckets of drywall compound, we maneuvered around lane-closure barricades. We didn’t have to knock out any walls, but we had to be aware of the bridge-demolition schedule. And on your way into or out of downtown on the MacVicar Freeway, if you forgot about the latest ramp closings, you got to take a tour of streets you hadn’t visited for a while.

And while we sat in traffic tie-ups, we had building projects to inspect. Month after month, the refacing of the Federal Building continues, turning a dark building into a bright, shiny one – but slowly. More striking was the way the Iowa Events Center rose out of the ground, transforming the riverfront skyline and turning part of Third Street into a brick-lined canyon. Who would use the palace? In the nick of time, we got the promise of hockey team, the Iowa Stars.

In Gateway West, the John and Mary Pappajohn Higher Education Center assumed its intriguing final form and opened. The new downtown public library, now officially known as “amoeba-shaped” even though biologists have never reported an amoeba that looked anything like it, moved along far enough so that we can start to imagine the finished product. And now it even has dirt on the roof.

Wells Fargo & Co., seemingly deep in the throes of a love affair with Greater Des Moines, leveled a building at Eighth and Walnut streets and started to build yet another business location.

You also could watch the new Science Center of Iowa take shape — if you were one of the rare motorists who actually used the stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway along the south edge of downtown.

That concrete should get more use in 2005, when the spaghetti-like intersection of Fleur Drive and MLK is complete and the streets have been named to everyone’s satisfaction.

The challenges presented by the freeway reconstruction must have convinced some commuters that living downtown would be a good idea. Buyers snapped up the high-priced condominiums at the Waterstreet Brownstones on the Des Moines River, and several have reportedly signed up for places at the Whiteline Lofts project, too – even though serious renovation of that warehouse has yet to begin.

Construction started on the Soho Lofts project in the East Village, and after a legal problem went away, Neighborhood Investment Corp. moved forward on its housing concept right across the street.

On Court Avenue, the long struggle to find an acceptable and workable plan seemed to find a resolution when the Des Moines City Council approved a plan by Jim Hubbell and Harry Bookey to renovate the upper floors of the Spaghetti Works building into residential units, and also construct two buildings south of Court on Fourth Street that will be mostly residential.

Inspired by these early successes, other developers announced one plan after another for transforming warehouses and office buildings into condominiums or apartments. Faced with parking shortages for planned tenants in the Equitable and Liberty buildings, developers proposed an eight-story parking garage on the site partly occupied by the legendary but long-vacant Babe’s restaurant.

But one big-money construction proposal didn’t survive 2004. Voters rejected the idea of placing a new gambling casino in Dallas, Madison or Warren county after months of controversy. During that period, Des Moines signed a deal with Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, agreeing to ban new casinos within city limits in exchange for millions of dollars in annual payments for five years.

Suburbs thrive

In the suburbs, there’s no question about the No. 1 business event of 2004. The opening of Jordan Creek Town Center was all the buzz last summer, and its stores and restaurants have stayed busy ever since.

Before the year was out, builders had made substantial progress on developing the rest of the big mall’s neighborhood, which will soon be dense with retail, housing and offices. At West Glen, located just off Interstate 35 on George M. Mills Civic Parkway, upscale jewelry and clothing stores are being readied to do business alongside a Target store. Preliminary work has begun at Galleria at Jordan Creek, an upscale shopping and dining complex, and construction is under way on the future home for part of Wells Fargo’s mortgage division.

The other corners of the metro area saw considerable action, too. Norwalk announced a billion-dollar commercial and residential plan. With the opening of the Corporate Woods Drive interchange on Interstate 35, Ankeny announced its plan for Crosswinds of Ankeny, a commercial and residential development. And in Altoona, a shopping center made up of Target, Staples and Lowe’s was up and running for the holiday season.


Not all of the changes were concrete and steel. Some of the people behind these changes switched jobs.

Martha Willits became president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. She replaced Teresa Wahlert, who left that job to be president and chief operating officer of Mid-America Group Ltd.

That was just the start of staff shuffling at the Partnership and its Downtown Community Alliance affiliate. Chris Greenfield departed from the Alliance to become president of Grubb & Ellis/Mid-America Pacific, and Kerty Nilsson Levy was named the Alliance’s interim president.

In November, Kent Sovern resigned as the Partnership’s senior vice president for government relations and signed on as executive director of the Des Moines Higher Education Collaborative at the John and Mary Pappajohn Center for Higher Education.

Elsewhere around Greater Des Moines, Dean Oestreich was named the 10th president of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc.; Kurt Mumm left Grubb & Ellis to become president of the Des Moines region of NAI Ruhl & Ruhl Commercial Co.; and four people were chosen for the Iowa Business Hall of Fame: former Gov. Robert Ray, Steven Chapman, president and chief executive officer of ITA Group, James Erickson, chairman and CEO of Anderson Erickson Dairy, and Wahlert.

Losses to the Central Iowa business community included clothier Bill Reichardt, who died in June at the age of 73.

More to come

During the past year, several seeds were planted with hopes of growth in 2005 and beyond, including an ambitious concept for townhouses and office-retail buildings at Riverpoint West. The site lies southwest of downtown and is bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, Southwest Ninth Street and the Raccoon River.

Drake University launched a fund-raising drive aimed at repairing and updating its venerable stadium, with hopes of landing the NCAA national track and field championships yet this decade. The effort was already off to a good start when retired Walgreen Co. chairman and CEO Dan Jorndt and his wife, Patricia McDonnell Jorndt, donated $10 million to their alma mater. Half of the donation went to the stadium renovation, which is now expected to start next May.

With rebuilt Iowa Highway 5 running right past his Echo Valley Country Club, owner Mike Coppola announced a plan to develop a number of building sites for homes, all tucked into an arrangement of nine new golf holes.

On the east side of the city, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said that it would build a “supercenter” store at the Eastgate Shopping Center.

However, the biggest local government proposal of the year didn’t get off the ground. Polk County voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea of merging the county and Des Moines city governments. As the year ended, some of the plan’s backers were working to find ways to merge services anyway.

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