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Downtown vision taking shape


Public-private partnerships are turning architect Gandelsonas’ vision into a reality

Block by block, grid by grid, renowned architect and urban planner Mario Gandelsonas toured the once-deserted streets of downtown Des Moines, finding the city had become a thriving metropolitan center transformed by elements of the $1.3 billion in construction projects and other amenities included in a vision plan he helped city leaders draft more than a decade ago.

In 1989, Gandelsonas gave civic leaders bold marching orders for a downtown renaissance that would result in a model 21st-century American city. A fellow at the prestigious Skidmore Ownings and Merrill Foundation, the was hired to oversee the process, which was considered groundbreaking at the time, and he coined the phrase “vision plan,” now deeply embedded in the vernacular of strategy development. He’s returned to Des Moines every year since to measure the progress.

What he saw on his most recent tour, on May 28, was a completed Allied Insurance building and a transformed Temple for Performing Arts, two examples of developments spurred by his vision for a spacious Gateway West park that would serve as the city’s “front yard.” Further east along Locust Street and Grand Avenue, he saw the historic East Village taking shape with eclectic restaurants and entertainment venues, retail shops and housing. He reviewed plans for the $25 million Principal Riverwalk, which will showcase the Des Moines River, a natural resource Gandelsonas said the city hasn’t fully utilized. He checked in on the progress of yet-to-be-built projects, such as the John and Mary Pappajohn Higher Education Center, new public library central branch and Science Center of Iowa. Over the years, he’s witnessed the beautification of Gray’s Lake and the Fleur Drive entry from Des Moines International Airport to downtown, progress on the new Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway that routes traffic through the downtown instead of around it, and the addition of more ground-level skywalk entrances and downtown housing.

Most of the goals he helped the city establish either have been met or are well on their way to being. To underscore what has been accomplished, the Gandelsonas’ hosts -the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, Meredith Corp. and Principal Financial Group Inc. – called his visit “a decade of progress.”

Gandelsonas said progress on vision projects is a testament to the strength of public-private partnerships. When he outlined his ambitious vision for the city, he warned leaders, “The only way you can do this is if you can create a partnership between the city and the private sector.”

“The city didn’t have any extra money, but they could invest in kind,” he said two weeks ago. “It’s amazing how everyone came together.”

Des Moines Mayor Preston Daniels, who’s made downtown development a cornerstone of his administration, said though public-private partnerships sometimes are assailed as providing “corporate welfare,” he doesn’t think any city can be truly successful without them.

“Virtually none of this would have been possible without the public-private partnerships that have taken place,” he said. “If you didn’t have them, our downtown would be a true ghost town.”

He said in exchange for assistance through tax increment financing, tax abatement and other economic development tools, corporations have committed to retaining a downtown presence. That’s resulted in a workforce of some 65,000 people downtown every day, a number urban planning specialists say is exceedingly high for a metropolitan area the size of Greater Des Moines.

Continued corporate investment “keeps the whole metro area very strong and gives us a cosmopolitan look, which is extremely important.”   “It’s a changing of the guard, if you will, from old community money to new corporate CEOs who don’t have that same vested interest,” he said. “We’re seeing tremendous giving on their part, and a commitment they don’t necessarily have to exhibit.”

Convincing a tax-conscious public of the value of allowing business and government to occasionally hold hands is a tough sell, Daniels admits. “The public tends not to understand it – they tend to question if a [corporation] is paying high enough taxes – but corporate giving has allowed this to go forward.

“People are very concerned with tax abatement and [tax increment finance plans] that return some money to corporate entities, but in fact, those same corporate entities could easily pack up, build on a cornfield and not pay a dime of taxes,” he said. “Some of them don’t have to grow their businesses in Des Moines. They could go to other cities, but they choose not to, because we’re a growing, safe, clean, dynamic community.”

The most recent example of businesses and government joining forces came with a complicated deal that will allow the Western Gateway project that Gandelsonas envisioned move forward. Mired in a fiscal quagmire, city officials put the project on hold indefinitely until financing could be arranged. Last month, officials announced a unique deal that borrows on Polk County’s larger debt capacity but does not obligate county taxpayers to repay $12 million in bonds that will be issued to acquire the land needed to complete the park. The Downtown Community Alliance, a private group of downtown business owners, will contribute $6 million to pay remaining city obligations related to the MLK and Interstate 235 projects. But the net effect is that the city and DCA are sharing in the Western Gateway costs on a 50-50 basis.

Excluding the $12 million, about $26.2 million has been committed thus far to the Western Gateway. Of that, the city put up $21.8 million and the Greater Des Moines Partnership contributed $4.4 million.

Public and private funds will be used to complete the Capital City Vision Projects, which include the Science Center, Pappajohn Center and new library, as well as the Iowa Events Center projects and a plan to house the World Food Prize Foundation in the current central library. In total, the projects will cost an estimated $201 million. Vision Iowa funds will cover about $70 million of the costs under a formula that leverages public and private investments. Polk County’s share of the obligation will be financed by revenue from Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino.

Daniels said some components of Gandelsonas’ vision plan have been part of city planning documents for years, but for various reasons, haven’t been brought to fruition. “The vision was really outlined here in Des Moines in the 1960s by a group of architects with experience very similar to Mario’s,” Daniels said. “What he did was to be here in the right place at the right time, and this time, it caught on.

“Local business folks were ready to step up to the plate, to move on something,” Daniels said. “Timing is so important on things like this.”

For example, dressing up the riverfront has been included in the city’s strategic plan since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until Principal Financial Group fueled the Riverwalk project with $10 million in seed money that the project was able to move forward.

“Today, we have a company to help us make this happen,” Daniels said.

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