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Reimagining a troubled downtown Court Avenue property

Owners want the property to be 'epicenter' of downtown entertainment district

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A troubled property in a downtown Des Moines entertainment district is getting a makeover that will include new tenants and a new name.

In recent years, the brick building at Court Avenue and Third Street has been known for its propensity to attract illicit activities. The property’s owners have cleared the buildings of all tenants and are working to secure new ones, said Tony DeSalvo, a member of the Cedar Falls-based ownership group.

New tenants could include a restaurant that would be on the first floor, an entertainment venue that would occupy the second floor, and a live “Nashville-style” music venue on the third floor, he said. The building’s name will be changed from Court Center to the CC.

“The mix of concepts within a building … is so very important,” DeSalvo said. “We have a responsibility to get the best mix of businesses in the building because we are at the epicenter of the [Court Avenue] entertainment district. This building can impact so much – from a block away, two blocks away, to a mile away.”

Court Center looks today
The three-story brick building as it looks today. Photo by John Retzlaff

In recent months, the building at 216 Court Ave. has had a negative impact on the Court Avenue area. In 2022, at least 60 calls were made for police to go to the building for crimes ranging from theft and disorderly conduct to attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, information provided by the city shows.

The violence and other incidents have been a “detriment to the Court Avenue district,” a city official told the Des Moines Zoning Board of Adjustment last December. A board member said the area is described as the “binge-drinking district, not an entertainment district.”

The board voted to require businesses at the property to close by midnight and post signs stating that areas in the building, including stairwells, were being surveilled by video cameras. The restrictions are in place through mid-December.

Jeff Hassman, another member of the ownership group, said the building’s previous tenants were primarily bars and other establishments that focused on serving alcohol.

“It was the wrong mix of concepts, the wrong mix of tenants,” Hassman said. The ownership group acquired the property nearly two years ago with the goal of rebranding it into a different venue type.

“What we’re talking about is a new name, a new approach, a new beginning, a new view on Des Moines entertainment,” Hassman said. “This building has served has a catalyst for the whole Court Avenue entertainment area, and it will be again.”

A look back at 216 Court Ave.
The three-story brick building was constructed on a site that previously had been home to other similar warehouses, according to a historical narrative of the property that accompanied its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Construction was completed in 1923. The design of the building by the local firm Vorse, Kraetsch and Kraetsch is “notable for its clean lines and rich surface textures,” the narrative reads.

The building, known as the Taft-West Warehouse, was built during the transition between reliance on railroads to move products across the country to the use of trucks to transport goods. The structure is one of the few remaining warehouses in Des Moines from that era that were “constructed and designed for trucks,” according to the narrative. Others either were destroyed in fires or were razed.

The warehouse was originally used by the C.C. Taft Co., which sold wholesale fruits, vegetables, tobacco and candy. The building was later occupied by O.B. West Co., another wholesale distributor, and then Plumb Supply Co.

Following World War II, “Court Avenue declined as Des Moines’ wholesale district and became a rendezvous for the demimonde,” the narrative read.

Nacho Mamas 1999
The three-story building at 216 Court Ave. as it looked in 1999 when Nacho Mama’s was a first-floor tenant. Photo courtesy Polk County assessor.

A number of things helped spark the revitalization of the Court Avenue area in the mid-1970s. Among them were the low rental rates and the area’s architectural richness and proximity to the downtown businesses.

In late 1991, a local restauranteur opened Nacho Mama’s in the former warehouse. The restaurant included an outdoor patio that was popular with guests. In July 1993, floodwaters filled the building’s basement and portions of the restaurant, as well as many other structures in the Court Avenue district.

While recovery from the devastating flood was slow, Nacho Mama’s was eventually able to reopen. It permanently closed its doors in the early 2000s.

Court Center’s beginnings
In the mid-2000s, the Taft-West Warehouse property was acquired by a new ownership group whose vision as to make the building a multi-venue destination. The building was renovated inside and out, including the addition of large, brightly lit signs touting the name “Court Center.”

The building’s renovation, which received a Des Moines Preservation Award, was completed in 2007. Its first tenants included A.K. O’ Connor’s, Legends American Grill, Liars Club, People’s Court and CC Taft Co.

Legands 2008
In 2008, Court Center included Liars Club and Legends Amercian Grill. Photo courtesy Polk County assessor.

“Immediately [Court Center’s] variety of venues under one roof became a destination,” Slingshot Architecture wrote about the project. “The bar crowd started to migrate from the suburbs back to downtown, drawn to the street life [and] activity at the corner of Court [and] Third.”

The improvements also increased the value of the property, which in 2005 was $651,000, according to the Polk County assessor. Ten years later, the property and its 35,000-square-foot building were valued at $5.4 million.

Over time, however, tenants in the building left. They were replaced with establishments whose focus was mostly on serving alcohol rather than providing wholesome entertainment. Among the tenants were Shag’s, Beer Can Alley, the Exchange, the Firm, the District Bar & Grill, and Downtown Tap & Patio.

The ownership group that includes DeSalvo and Hassman acquired the property nearly two years ago. The plan was to bring in new tenants that provide safe and fun entertainment and dining options.

City leaders are encouraged by the group’s vision for the building, said Matt Anderson, Des Moines’ deputy city manager.

“They are still going to have establishments with liquor licenses, but there’s going to be less of a focus on alcohol and a look toward entertainment,” Anderson said. “I think that plays well into what we envision Court Avenue being as an entertainment district rather than being a drinking district.”

In recent months the building has been largely vacant, creating a blemish on the Court Avenue entertainment district, Anderson said. One business – Spaghetti Works restaurant – closed after more than four decades in the district. The restaurants owner cited the district’s unsafe atmosphere as a contributing factor to the closure.

Other businesses have experienced challenges, including the popular Johnny’s Hall of Fame at 302 Court Ave.

“This past year was a rough year for Johnny’s,” said Todd Millang, a majority owner and operator of Johnny’s as well as the nearby RoCA and Shorty’s, both at 208 Court Ave. “We’ve still done well … but it’s not what we’ve been accustomed to.”

Making improvements to the building at 216 Court Ave. and bringing in new tenants will benefit the entire Court Avenue district, Millang said.

“It’s great to have options all across the city,” Millang said. “When we get visitors in, they are usually staying downtown and they want to go to the historic entertainment district. … We need to have a good mix.”

Making 216 Court Ave. successful again
DeSalvo and Hassman said that they both have experience in commercial real estate and the hospitality industry.

“It’s not like this is our first rodeo,” said Hassman, who is managing director of Cedar Falls-based CVP Advisors, which provides strategic and financial services to regional businesses.

DeSalvo is president of Harmonic Hospitality Group, a multi-concept restaurant bar group that operates four concepts in Iowa: the Stuffed Olive, Roxxy, Deringer’s Public Parlor and Tap Tap.

Tony DeSalvo
Tony DeSalvo

The two have done developments in downtown Cedar Falls and Iowa City’s Ped Mall. They are involved in a project in downtown Omaha and will soon be announcing a project in another Midwestern city, Hassman said. “We have a track record of doing and getting things done,” he said.

The ownership group has invested “millions” in cleaning out the building and “we will invest millions more” in its makeover, Hassman said. He declined to provide a specific dollar amount.

The group has a letter of intent from the operator of the Des Moines Stuffed Olive, now at 208 Third St., to relocate to the street-level space at the CC, DeSalvo said. “If this works out – and we’re in some pretty good conversations – they would be the anchor tenant on the first floor.”

The ownership group is also working to attract an amusement or entertainment venue to the second level and a live music venue to the third floor.

Anderson, the city’s deputy city manager, is hopeful the ownership group can attract new tenants and reinvigorate the entertainment district. Getting a new tenant on the first floor would be a good first step, he said.

“I think that would go a long way in convincing the public that Court Avenue is back and viable and is an important piece of our entertainment downtown,” Anderson said.

DeSalvo and Hassman are hopeful that the street-level space will be occupied by late 2023 or early 2024.

The CC patio
A patio on the east side of the former warehouse at 216 Court Ave. will undergo a makeover, owners of the property said. The rendering is just one concept that is being explored. Rendering special to the Business Record

One sticking point is the board of adjustment’s requirement that businesses in the building close at midnight. The stipulation is in place until late December when the board is scheduled to review it again. Allowing businesses in the building to be open until 2 a.m. is crucial to attracting top-notch tenants, Hassman said. In August, the group plans on asking the board to lift the closing restriction, he said.

“The board’s message was clear and [the problems] were fixed,” Hassman said. “And not only were they fixed, we were able to implement our vision for a reimagination of this building.”

More online: Learn more about the Taft-West Warehouse and its history by clicking here.


Pending lawsuit

A lawsuit pending in Polk County District Court alleges that the ownership group’s mismanagement of Court Center ultimately led to Des Moines’ Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision to limit the hours of operation of establishments in the building.

The lawsuit was filed in early June by Eric Hartung, who operated Downtown Tap & Patio. The bar lost $42,000 a month after the zoning board’s decision, the lawsuit said.

The property’s owners were “responsible for maintaining the premises in a safe manner,” the lawsuit said. The owners “failed to meet that responsibility by allowing various patterns of illegal activity to take place within and around the building.”

“We’re very disappointed that that lawsuit even took place,” said Tony DeSalvo, a member of the ownership group. DeSalvo said the group gave Hartung “significant concessions” after the board’s decision last December.

“We knew that the 12 a.m. curfew was going to have a significant impact on them,” he said.
The ownership group is hopeful that an agreement can be worked out with Hartung, DeSalvo said. “We don’t want them to leave.”

A trial date has not been set for case.


Shag’s and property ownership group

Shag’s Club, a nightclub that had been located in the building at 216 Court Ave., had ties to the Cedar Falls group that owns the property, a spokesman for the group said.

Shags Club
Signs promoting former tenants remain on the building at 216 Court Ave. Photo by John Retzlaff

There was some “common ownership” between the limited liability company that owns the property and Shag’s, said Tony DeSalvo, a member of the ownership group. “The building ownership group had absolutely no knowledge or control over Shag’s operations. … As soon as the building ownership found out about [the issues occurring at nightclub], we shut down Shag’s and never reopened it. It was our choice.”

DeSalvo emphasized that Shag’s will not reopen in the reimagined CC building.

The Des Moines City Council last October voted to suspend Shag’s liquor license for 14 days and fine the club $1,000. The suspension came after at least one person exposed themselves at Shag’s and a sexual act was performed at the nightclub. The incident was captured on video and shared on social media.

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Kathy A. Bolten

Kathy A. Bolten is a senior staff writer at Business Record. She covers real estate & development, law & government and retail.

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