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Principal takes plan for Riverwalk to city council


When architect Dave Nickolas and Libby Jacobs of Principal Financial Group Inc., deliver the results of a year long study on Principal’s Riverwalk project this week to the Des Moines City Council, their plans be backed by voices from thousands of citizens.

The Riverwalk’s 15-member executive committee has received more than 3,000 e-mails from Greater Des Moines residents offering ideas for the 1.2-mile stretch of riverfront that will be transformed by the project.

That’s on top of a series of public meetings that have regularly drawn more than 150 people and a seemingly non-stop number of requests for private presentations from breakfast clubs and other groups. All told, more than 5,000 people had contributed input to the project, Jacobs said.

“We’ve really been overwhelmed” by the amount of public comments on the project, said Mary O’Keefe, Principal’s vice president of corporate relations and human resources who is heading the company’s project. “We saw a huge section of the community respond.”

During a meeting last October, Riverwalk organizers presented a plan that would create two parallel paths, one for walkers and the other for faster-moving traffic such as cyclists and joggers. The paths promised to link the Court Avenue entertainment district with the Iowa Events Center, the Des Moines Botanical Center and the new Science Center of Iowa.

Ideas presented at that time also included a fountain near the Armory Building that would convert into an ice skating rink in winter months and a park near Sec Taylor Stadium. There was talk of ways to let engineers raise the water level of the Des Moines River high enough to make it navigable by canoes, kayaks and other small watercraft.

O’Keefe and others who will deliver the city council presentation Monday night, will tell council members that much of the project will remain the way it has been described, though have been some key changes.

First is the price tag.

Originally billed as a $20 million project, planners now expect the cost to top $25 million.

A big reason for the cost increases is related to unforeseen expenses. For example, the plans call for a transformation of the railroad bridge that spans the Des Moines River into a pedestrian bridge. What Riverwalk planners didn’t know months ago is that the bridge is covered with lead-based paint. It will cost an estimated $1 million to remove the paint, O’Keefe said.

Another difference is the running path. The two-path design won’t be possible, at least on both sides of the river.

Instead, there will be two paths on the west side of the river and one path on the east side. The reason is the city’s bridges, O’Keefe said. On the west side, the bridges have tunnels that a runner’s path can go through. The east sides of the bridges don’t have that feature and it would be prohibitively expensive to build them, Jacobs said. As a result, any type of aerobic path would be difficult to incorporate.

The fountain near the Armory Building that converts into an ice skating rink in winter remains in the plan, as does at least one of the futuristic bridges that were designed for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles that will span the Des Moines River.

Organizers continue to work on ways to offer access to the river.

“That’s going to be a challenge, because of the cost,” O’Keefe said.

The project has been broken into two phases. The first phase, which is expected to be paid for largely with money from Principal, will include a link on the river’s west side to Gray’s Lake, something that was discussed earlier but never included formally as part of the plans.

It will also make room for some business interests, such as juice bars, bike rental or snack vendors, who want to locate along the waterfront, O’Keefe said. There are plans for an elevator near Court Avenue that will provide universal access to the Riverwalk, Jacobs said.

Phase one of the project is expected to be finished by 2004 as originally planned, in time for Principal’s 125th anniversary, O’Keefe said.

The Riverwalk’s second phase, to which Principal hasn’t committed money, could include further development south of Sec Taylor Stadium, O’Keefe said.

There is a potential stumbling block regarding the project’s financing. The Riverwalk’s organizers are hoping for about $10 in matching funds from the federal government, and have enlisted help from Iowa’s congressional delegation to get it. However, government matching programs typically require the matched money to be spent at the same time as its contribution.

Getting the federal dollars will likely take more than a year. Principal, whose foundation has committed up to $10 million toward the project, wants to get started as soon as possible – perhaps by this spring.

O’Keefe said organizers need to find a way that will let the project get started with Principal’s money and continue next year with funding from the government.

O’Keefe said there are no plans for a capital campaign to raise the additional $5 million that is expected to be needed. Instead, O’Keefe said she believes that philanthropists or others in the community will provide that money.

On Tuesday, there will be a public presentation of the project starting at 5:30 p.m. at the downtown branch of the Des Moines Public Library. The presentation will last 15-20 minutes and include an animated video of what the Des Moines riverfront would look like with the Riverwalk project in place.      “We want everyone to come and watch it,” O’Keefe said.

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