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News conference planned today on proposed federal courthouse


Federal officials’ plans to replace this courthouse complex with a new facility on the former site of the Riverfront YMCA have stirred controversy that continues today with a news conference the Business Record will carry on Facebook Live. (Photo by John Retzlaff)

Sentiment is mounting in Des Moines’ business and local community that spending more than $137 million on a new federal courthouse would be a waste of taxpayers’ money because the current facilities are still in good condition and have space to accommodate court functions.

During a news conference this afternoon, Des Moines business and community leaders plan to call for the project to be immediately halted. In addition, they plan to ask federal officials to allow journalists into the existing federal facilities to photograph and video the space.

“This is not an efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” Christine Hensley, former Des Moines city councilwoman, recently told the Business Record. Hensley originally opposed the new courthouse because of the site selected for it. However, after touring the two current federal facilities in Des Moines, she remains opposed, but for different reasons.

Both the current federal courthouse at 123 E. Walnut St. and its nearby annex are in good condition, Hensley said. In addition, several rooms in the buildings are unused. Instead of using the money allocated to build a new courthouse, money should be spent to make the existing buildings more secure and to do small upgrades, she said.

“I would be willing to bet you, if you took 10 citizens into (the two buildings) and showed them that, they would just be appalled that they want to spend money on a new courthouse,” she said.  
The current federal courthouse, which opened in 1929, “is a significant monument” along the east bank of the Des Moines River, according to a  history of the building on the GSA’s website. The building “illustrates principles of Beaux Arts architectural design and urban planning,” the article says. 

In 1988, the building was recognized as a “contributing resource to the Civic Center Historic District.” That year, the building underwent a construction rehabilitation. An annex with additional court spaces was built in 1995 just south of the courthouse.

In August, the U.S. General Services Administration announced it had selected the site of the former Riverfront YMCA at 101 Locust St. to build a new federal courthouse. The GSA, in April, told the Business Record that it had put too much time and money into selecting and obtaining the site to change course.

The site is along the Principal Riverwalk and officials have long argued that taking the property off the property tax rolls would have a long-term negative impact on Des Moines. In addition, officials are concerned that the way the courthouse is proposed to be built would harm 
economic and recreational activity along the Riverwalk.

Relocating the courthouse to the former YMCA site “threatens the future public use of the site, thereby diminishing the city’s appeal to residents and prospective talent,” wrote Bruce Kelley, president and CEO of EMC Insurance Cos., in a letter to Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Rep. Cynthia Axne. The courthouse’s security standards “threaten to restrict and/or eliminate free access to the area.”

Iowa’s congressional delegation have received letters from others as well, including the Des Moines City Council, Polk County Board of Supervisors, Downtown Neighborhood Association and Meredith Corp. 

Others have joined the opposition.

Mike Whalen, president and CEO of Heart of America Group, told the Business Record that he opposes the relocation of the federal courthouse because existing facilities are in good condition.

“Why would we spend that much more money (on a new facility) when there are viable alternatives,” he said. “This is definitely something people in the private sector wouldn’t do – why are they allowed to do it in the public sector?”

The Business Record will livestream today’s 2:30 p.m. news conference at the U.S. Courthouse at 123 E. Walnut St. To watch it, go to https://www.facebook.com/DMBusinessRecord/.

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