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Can the Highland Apartments structure in Des Moines be saved?

2 local historic preservationists are exploring the possibility


Tanya Keith, a local historical preservationist, wasn’t optimistic that she would be able to persuade the Des Moines City Council to push the pause button on a request to demolish a century-plus-old building in the Highland Park neighborhood.

But an outcry from community members and an 11th-hour pitch by Jack Hatch, another local preservationist, was enough to get the council to delay a decision on whether to allow the demolition of a 108-year-old, three-story brick building on the southwest corner of Sixth and Euclid avenues.

“We are very excited and we have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Keith, who started Hat Trick Renovation six years ago.

Hatch, though, cautioned that no guarantees exist that the building will be saved.

“If it’s possible to go forward and there is significant – and this is important – significant, realistic resources to finance it, then I think [redevelopment] can move forward,” said Hatch, who owns Hatch Development Group, which has been involved in redevelopment of several century-plus-old buildings in Central Iowa.

“I have no illusions of trying to do something that’s not realistic.”

Highland Apartments history

The building, known as the Highland Apartments, was built around 1915 near the Highland and Oak Park streetcar lines that transported residents to and from downtown Des Moines. The structure included 12 apartment units, several with large bay windows that overlooked a parklike setting that was on the south side of the building.

Entry way highland apartments
The entryway to the apartments as it currently looks. Photo by Tanya Keith

Two commercial spaces were on the first level. Over the years, those spaces were occupied by a dentist’s office, Smith’s Highland Park Pharmacy, a laundromat and a record store, according to Des Moines Heritage Trust.

The building, which is on the trust’s list of endangered buildings, has been neglected for several years.

In 2021, Benchmark Real Estate Group acquired the property with plans to renovate the building. However, redevelopment costs were too high and the group sold the property to Invest DSM, which also explored renovating the structure.

Like Benchmark, Invest DSM found that renovation expenses were too great, Amber Lynch, the group’s executive director, has said. She recently estimated renovation costs at between $5.5 million and $6 million.

In April, Invest DSM announced it would raze the building, a step that must be approved by Des Moines’ Landmark Review Board and City Council. If approval is received to tear down the building, Invest DSM has proposed constructing the Commons at Highland Park, a four-story structure that would include up to 50 residential units and street-level commercial space.

The Commons would be built on the corner lot plus three lots to the west that are owned by Invest DSM, a joint effort between the city of Des Moines and Polk County to expand revitalization efforts in the city’s neighborhoods.

The council at its meeting on Monday was expected to refer the building’s proposed demolition to the review board for consideration. Instead, the item was taken off the agenda.

“We expected that the historic preservation community would have a difficult time with the proposal to demolish this building,” Lynch told the Business Record. “It is a loss.”

Lynch noted that Benchmark Real Estate Group found that renovation expenses were too great even with financial incentives from the city of Des Moines, Invest DSM and the state of Iowa.

“While we’re encouraged that other developers want to make their own assessments, they should not assume or anticipate additional taxpayer-funded incentives,” Lynch said. “Because the building’s condition deteriorates more every day, a developer will need to prove they have the requisite experience and financial capacity to take this complicated and difficult project over.”

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The interior of the Highland Apartments. File photo

Added Lynch: “As we move forward, we need to think very carefully about preserving, at great cost, a neglected and dilapidated structure if it gets in the way of rebuilding and strengthening a neighborhood.”

Optimism in the air
When Keith began exploring the possibility of renovating the Highland Apartments, several people stepped forward to help. An architect has offered their services and a mason has offered to help repair bricks, she said.

“I believe to the depths of my soul that this is a salvageable building,” said Keith, who last year started Preservation Corps United, which provides education about historic preservation and restorations.

If the building is saved, Keith said she would like to open an education center that provides people with a place to learn how to do preservation work. The center would include teaching spaces as well as spaces that people could rent to do things like repairing windows.

Hatch said it’s important for the community to begin discussions about saving historic buildings long before they fall into disrepair.

“Historic buildings are so essential to the health and benefit and future neighborhoods and cities,” Hatch said. The buildings “not only represent the past, but when they are saved and renovated, show how important it is to reclaiming that building and having a sense of who has lived in or been a part of the building.”

Push for new city policy
The Des Moines Heritage Trust this month released a list of seven endangered buildings. Most have sat unused for several years.

Keith said the city of Des Moines should develop a policy called “mothballing” that protects vacated, historic buildings from the weather elements and vandalism.

“Mothballing is a concept that if you have an old building, the owner has a responsibility to make sure that it is saved,” Keith said. “You can’t just let it be demolished by decay. You have a responsibility to take care of it for the next generation.”

Hatch agrees. “This is not just about the Highland Apartments. It’s about all historic buildings that are facing the same kind of vagrants and vacancy that can prevent them from being rehabbed.”

If Keith is able to acquire the Highland Apartments, she said the first thing she will do is repair its roof and enclose the envelope of the building so that water doesn’t continue to seep into it.

Keith and Hatch plan on meeting this week. They also said they plan on getting permission to see the inside of the Highland Apartments and meet with other developers and tradespeople to get their assessments on the costs associated with renovating the building.

To view a video about the Commons at Highland Park, click here.  

Related articles: Proposal: Raze dilapidated building in Highland Park
Council will decide future of dilapidated building in Highland Park


Kathy A. Bolten

Kathy A. Bolten is a senior staff writer at Business Record. She covers real estate & development, law & government and retail.

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