Pleasant Hill’s prime development areas along E. University Avenue
The amount of daily traffic on E. University provides an opportunity to attract new businesses and development, city officials say
Nearly 25,000 vehicles each day travel the 4.5-mile stretch of Iowa Highway 163/East University Avenue that bisects Pleasant Hill, a suburb appended to Des Moines’ eastern boundaries.
In the past decade, development along the four-lane highway has included the addition of retail strip centers in the Copper Creek subdivision, medical clinics, convenience stores, banks, and a fast-food restaurant, grocery store and auto dealership.
Now city officials are seeking even more development along the corridor that is bookended by Copper Creek Lake on the west and Southeast Polk middle and high schools on the east. Officials have identified three priority areas:
- About 230 acres on the north side of University a Northeast 75th Street.
- About 60 acres at Northeast 70th Street on the south side of East University.
- A nearly 6-acre site at 5401 E. University Ave. that once was occupied by a water park.
“We recognize that having 25,000 cars each day drive down University brings a high level of visibility to our community,” said Madeline Sturms, Pleasant Hill’s community development director. “We are seeing what we can do to capture those opportunities that we have coming through the city every day.”
A few years ago, Pleasant Hill installed signs along University welcoming people to the community, which has about 10,000 residents. Banners with the city’s name on them were hung on light fixtures as a way to communicate with motorists what community they were traveling in. Officials also stepped up a marketing campaign highlighting Pleasant Hill’s close proximity to downtown and the ease of traveling to the airport or getting to major interstates that run through Iowa.
“Part of our growth has been being able to tell our story, and that’s something that we have continued to share over and over again,” said Sara Kurovski, who was elected mayor in 2013.
In addition, the city has been very intentional in its planning, she said. More than 800 acres within the city are undeveloped. “We want everyone moving in the same direction.”
A planning session identified priorities, among them spurring development along the University Avenue corridor.
234-acre commerce park
Pleasant Hill is working with the Iowa Economic Development Authority to designate 234 acres near Northeast 75th Street north of University as a Certified Site. The designation guarantees to developers that all of the necessary infrastructure improvements are in place and reviews have been done to allow construction on the site. Officials expect to obtain the designation by midsummer.
“This is a commitment that the site is shovel-ready,” said Ben Champ, Pleasant Hill’s city administrator. “If someone picks this site to build on, [the designation] lets them know that everything can be accommodated within 90 days.
“There are some companies that will only look at these types of sites. They don’t want to wait two years to build; they want to do it now.”
The area includes the site of an ill-fated warehouse complex, a development that was nixed after an uproar over concerns of increased truck traffic from area residents and parents of students who attended Southeast Polk High School.
The 234 acres are zoned for light industrial and office.
“If there’s any project I want to see happen, it’s this one,” Kurovski said. “This will be a driver for additional jobs within our city limits. We want this to be a high-quality development.”
New public safety building
Development south of University Avenue was sparked a year or so ago when the city began reconstructing the intersection at Northeast 70th Street to meet urban roadway standards, Sturms said. “Making that more of an urban section starts to make it more development-friendly and makes it feel more like a city.”
Pleasant Hill also installed its first roundabout south of the intersection as a way to buffer commercial development from residential and control traffic.
The city plans on building a new public safety building along Meacham Drive west of Northeast 70th Street. The city acquired a nearly 7-acre site just east of Northeast 70th when it entered a development agreement to extend Meacham and connect it with University Avenue.
The extension of Meacham opened up about 60 acres for commercial development that could include restaurants, office and multifamily residential, Sturms said.
Former water park site
The nearly 6 acres at 5104 E. University were an eyesore for more than a decade after a water park closed in 2005. The parcel was bought in 2018 by developer Jake Christensen.
Originally, plans called for an apartment building to be constructed on a portion of the site, but the Iowa Finance Authority did not award tax credits to the firm hoping to construct the multifamily structure.
Still, development will soon occur on the site.
This week, Pleasant Hill’s planning commission reviewed plans for a Burger King fast-food restaurant that would be built on about 2 acres of the site. Christensen said his plans for the site also include a retail center that could include “all of the neighborhood resources you’d expect in a center.”