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Consultants choose Dico site for $160M police station

A consulting team led by RDG Planning & Design this morning recommended the city of Des Moines build a $160 million police complex on the north end of the Dico Inc. Superfund site near Martin Luther King Parkway and Fleur Drive.

The police complex would be just north of a proposed sports stadium for Des Moines schools and possibly for private sports teams. To the east is a large development area that will include Hubbell Realty Co.’s planned 75-acre Gray’s Station neighborhood. The city complex would also include the law-enforcement academy, now located at Southeast Fifth Street and Army Post Road. That site would be offered for redevelopment. 

At a City Council workshop, RDG laid out rough plans for a four-story police building at the former Dico site, which has been the subject of Superfund negotiations and lawsuits for years. Councilwoman Christine Hensley, Mayor Frank Cownie and city staffers have been meeting with the EPA, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, school district administrators and others to try to clear the site, which developers and others consider an eyesore next to an estimated $400 million in completed and planned development south of the downtown core.

Of course, the police complex, if approved, would come with a cost: An increase in city property taxes of an estimated $1.50 per $1,000 in taxable valuation.

The current police station along the Des Moines River was originally built as a courts building in the early 20th century. 

Hensley pushed EPA officials hard at today’s meeting to commit to at least getting the buildings on the Dico site cleared soon. “I think we can make something really significant here,” she told EPA representatives at the meeting. “I challenge you to get rid of the buildings,” she exclaimed, her voice rising.

“I truly feel that what is being proposed now is the highest and best use of the land,” Hensley said. “You aren’t going to get a developer to come in.”
Hensley said the schools, or the city, or a joint entity, could end up buying the land, which could simplify the next steps. 

Kristen Nazar, the EPA’s assistant regional counsel, said the EPA considers the site a priority for cleanup and redevelopment. She did not commit to a timetable — noting legal actions and other complications — but noted that talks with the city and Dico representatives continue. 

Rita Conner, economic development coordinator for the city, said Gray’s Station will change the area. That and other developments have added pressure to work to improve the former Dico site, which is a blight on the area, she added. 

“We are very concerned that the site in its current condition will jeopardize developments in the area,” Conner told council members. 

RDG said it will ask the City Council Dec. 4 to endorse the new police station site and consider next steps, including removal of buildings, a soil survey and redevelopment scenarios. That work would take three to four months. 

School officials have said they hope to be in a position to consider more specific plans by March, city officials said. 

City Manager Scott Sanders said the new police station isn’t in the six-year capital improvements program and most likely won’t be in the one approved next year either. The trick now is to lock up the land and get cleanup going, he said.

“Sites are difficult to come by and to hold on to,” Sanders said, noting that several potential sites were lost to the building boom downtown. Because private developers are unlikely to wade into the Dico site’s long history of groundwater and soil contamination, some of it linked to industrial solvents that may have been from a different site, the Superfund site is attractive for a public complex, he added. 

Part of the RDG study drew some pointed questions from council members. The study envisioned the police staff of 464 growing to 617 by 2040, an increase of 33 percent. That seemed high to several council members, who also wondered why the police department — which already has more vehicles, 523, than it does officers and staff, would need 741 vehicles in 2040. 

Cownie and several council members said they want city staff to estimate what the added police and staff would cost, too. 

The department’s current 100,000 square feet — which consultants said is smaller than facilities in comparable cities — would need to be 273,000 in 2020 and 286,000 in 2030. Projections call for 305,000 square feet in 2040, using expansion space at the Dico site. 

Police Chief Dana Wingert said it probably will be five or six years before much work is done on the new police station. City staffers said it is important to lock up the land, and added that the environmental problems at the site most likely mean a public project is more likely than a private development there. 

RDG and its associates studied more than 10 sites, narrowing the field down to a lot just north of the Municipal Services Center along Martin Luther King Parkway and the Dico site near Fleur Drive and King Parkway. The site near the services center was ruled out before it was being eyed for a proposed transload facility to assist truck and rail shipments.

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