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Plans emerge for Court Avenue development projects


The Court Avenue District Investment Fund LLC, a group of local businesses that have invested in the Court Avenue neighborhood, received four requests for proposals for the renovation of the Court Avenue Historic District last week. One of the proposals came from Court Avenue Partners, a joint venture between Harry Bookey’s BH Equities and Jim Hubbell III’s Hubbell Realty Co., two Des Moines companies that have initiated the idea for a revitalized Court Avenue.

The four proposals outline plans for revitalizing the Court Avenue area, including mixed-income housing, retail space, entertainment venues and new restaurants – the types of projects, city officials say, are crucial to the district’s survival and to the rebirth of downtown.

“We’ve been talking for a long time about the need for housing in downtown Des Moines,” said Chris Greenfield, president of the Downtown Community Alliance. “These proposals are exciting because they can help us do things downtown that are critical for its success. They’re all great in their own way.”

Housing, Greenfield said, above retail and commercial development, is key to powering the area’s economic engine.

“In order to create a life everybody strives for, you’ve got to have people live downtown,” he said. “We haven’t paid as much attention to residents.”

Bookey and Hubbell concurred. Their plan calls for a mixed-use neighborhood that includes nine commercial and residential development projects located betweenSecond and Fifth avenues. The proposal includes the construction of 244 mixed income apartment units, with rents ranging from $655 to $1,050 per month. Forty percent of those units would qualify as “affordable housing,” in which persons earning an annual salary of $28,000 would be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment and those making $36,000 or more could pay for a two-bedroom unit.

“The city has identified housing needs to be its top priority,” Hubbell said. “The more people that live downtown, the better everything is. The opportunity to do something with Court Avenue right now is stronger than it was a year or two years ago, and we want to take advantage of that. Now is the chance to think a little bigger.”

In addition to housing, Bookey said their joint-venture plan calls for the development of an entertainment complex that would be created by joining the building housing Judge Roy Bean’s and the former site of Nacho Mammas restaurant to form a potpourri of nightclubs, including a dance club and live music venues. Plans also call for a pedestrian walkway; a 14,000-square-foot public market; a 4,000-5,000-square-foot health club; a 1,000-square-foot business center; commercial shopping with a variety of niche businesses; residential parking; and restaurants. Among the new restaurants would be one specializing in Caribbean/Latin American cuisine, operated by owners of the downtown Centro restaurant.

These businesses, Bookey said, would play an important role in creating an eclectic, mixed-use neighborhood like those found in Chicago, Kansas City and Omaha.

“We want to create the right kind of urban atmosphere,” he said, “and we think our proposal accomplishes that.”

Ten years ago, it was estimated that a downtown worker spends approximately $1,500 a year in the central business district while a downtown resident spends about $10,000 there. Those numbers would be much further apart now, Greenfield said.

“The difference, I’m sure, has grown,” he said, “and those residents will be a magnet for others.”

Greenfield said the Court Avenue District Investment Fund will review the four proposals, interview each developer and select one that is “financially feasible and exciting to the community.” The group is expected to submit a developer-initiated proposal to the city of Des Moines in mid-June. If the city approves the plan, Greenfield said, construction could begin as early as next spring. “That’s a realistic timetable and not an optimistic one,” he said.

MetroPlains Development LLC and MetroPlains Properties Inc., a St. Paul-based developer and property owner, respectively, submitted a proposal to convert the upper three floors of the Spaghetti Works building into loft-style apartments containing about 1,300 square feet each, according to the plan.

A new building would be constructed west of Spaghetti Works that would be similar in appearance to that building. The first floor would be used for some kind of commercial business, leaving the upper three floors for apartments. An underground parking garage would also be built and there are plans for a small park to the west and south of the Spaghetti Works building.

The plan also calls for several three-level residential buildings to be constructed on a parcel of land south of the Spaghetti Works. Some of the buildings in this development, which would have underground parking, would contain townhouse-style residential units.

A third cluster of residential and commercial buildings would be built between Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, with townhouses along the southern edge of the property, just north of the former Des Moines train depot.

A different proposal for the Spaghetti Works building submitted by a partnership between Sioux City-based InVision Architecture and Spencer-based Community Housing Initiatives would not substantially change the exterior of the building so that it would remain a prominent piece of architecture along Court Avenue. CHI has completed projects similar to the Spaghetti Works building in other cities.

Forty-two rental units would be developed in the upper stories of the building, ranging in size from 804 to 1,147 square feet. A community room would be developed in the main-floor lobby, with both one- and two-bedroom units on the second, third and fourth floors.

The developers of that project propose that the Court Avenue Housing Investment Fund, the city of Des Moines and the Neighborhood Improvement Corp. work together to secure one parking space per rental unit in a manner that is most congruent with their overall plans for development of the area.

Minneapolis-based Lander-Sherman Urban Development and Elness Swenson Graham Architects proposed a project that would incorporate multiple buildings, an indoor farmers market similar to one the partnership developed in St. Paul, and ground floor restaurants and retail establishments into their plan. It calls for 250 new mixed-income rental housing units; 95 new condominiums and lofts; and 400 parking spaces, both above and underground.

Three stories of residential properties would be located above an indoor farmers market and street-level commercial enterprises. Housing would be renovated over existing commercial businesses, and linear housing would be located on both Southwest Fourth and Southwest Third streets.

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