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Nothing dead about Des Moines


Sometimes, it takes someone from the outside to remind us what’s right with Des Moines, to tell us how inaccurate it is to saddle the city with the moniker “Dead” Moines.

Des Moines is alive, said William H. Hudnut III, senior research fellow for public policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute and a former mayor of Indianapolis, which approved a city-county consolidation in 1970. He was the speaker last week at the Downtown Community Alliance’s “Know It All” lecture series examining downtown issues. Des Moines couldn’t have found a better cheerleader.

He thinks Des Moines has more to be proud of than discouraged about. City leaders’ collective self-esteem should have increased tenfold. He credited them with not only recognizing the value of big projects like the Capital City Vision Projects – the Wells Fargo Arena, the Hy-Vee Exhibit Hall, the Public Library of Des Moines, the Science Center of Iowa, the Public Library of Des Moines, the Pappajohn Higher Education Center and the World Food Prize Foundation headquarters – but also understanding that it’s small details that tie together the social fabric of a city.

He talked about The Temple for Performing Arts restoration and the fund-raising campaign to not only return the Hoyt Sherman Place theater to its former glory, but make it better. He praised the renaissance going on in the East Village and gave accolades to leaders for their goal to add 60,000 more housing units, many of them for people with low to moderate incomes, by 2010. “Retail follows rooftops,” he said.

He mentioned less visible signs of progress, such as the efforts of the Citizens for Unified Government, the charter commission studying consolidation of the Des Moines city and Polk County governments. Combined governance, he said, makes it easier to adopt a common vision and common goals. It has the potential to make everyone in the metropolitan area a stakeholder. He said because Unigov, which resulted from the consolidation of Indianapolis and Marion County, Ind., existed, that metropolitan area has been better able to negotiate deals.

He talked about what downtown Des Moines has going for it. “There are literally hundreds of mayors across the country who would give their eyeteeth to have 51 percent of their workers downtown,” he said, casting a side glance at Mayor Preston Daniels, who has made strengthening downtown one of the cornerstones of his administration.

But therein lies the challenge: keeping them downtown after 5. He challenged leaders to think differently, sharing his disdain for one-way streets that make it easy for workers to flee to the suburbs each evening. “Traffic engineers are wonderful people, but they do not understand the dynamics of a city,” Hudnut said. “Two-way streets help impede some of the rush of the lemmings back to the suburbs.”   He talked about the suburbs, noting that they’re wonderful cities in their own right, but that their expansion creates the “doughnut” effect of a hole in the middle. Without Des Moines, the communities ringing the “mother city” would be “suburbs of nothing.”

Across the country, cities are rediscovering their downtowns. Des Moines is ahead of the pack. Unspoken but clear in Hudnut’s message was this: Be patient. Des Moines is getting there. “People now speak of Des Moines, rather than Des Moines, Iowa,” he said.

And that’s something.

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