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The Elbert Files: What Des Moines hath wrought


Des Moines’ 1995 comprehensive parks plan was not aggressive enough.

Few would have agreed at the time.

In fact, 22 years ago many believed it was too ambitious in its call for amenities that included development of the downtown riverfront and Gray’s Lake areas, creation of an outdoor ice skating rink, expanded botanical gardens, new connections for bicycle and walking trails, preservation of old-growth timber and the addition of new linear parks adjacent to roads and rivers.

A friend showed me a copy of the 1995 plan recently and remarked about how much of it we’ve accomplished.

That’s true.

What he didn’t say is how far beyond the plan we’ve gone.

With hindsight it’s easy to argue the 1995 plan did not go far enough, that it missed a lot of opportunities.

That’s something to keep in mind as we plan for the future.

A lot has happened that was not foreseen, including the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Garden, a new downtown library and conversion of the old library into the World Food Prize headquarters and high-end event venue.

And while the 1995 plan called for development of the downtown riverfront, there is no way planners could have foreseen what would happen after Principal Financial Group took the lead in 2003 to create a downtown riverwalk.

Nor could they have predicted the linear park created during the renovation of 14 miles of Interstate 235 during 2002-2008 when $20 million of the $429 million cost was spent on landscaping. 

Similarly, the decision to change the design of the Martin Luther King bypass on the southern edge of downtown from a high-speed freeway into a boulevard was a stroke of genius. 

The hope in 1995 was to somehow beautify Fleur Drive between the airport and downtown and to do something with Gray’s Lake.

The Ruan family stepped up and turned parts of Fleur into a three-season garden, while the Kruidenier and Meredith families wrote checks that created a wonderful trail around Gray’s Lake and connected it with downtown.

It’s important to remember that there was synergy to everything that happened: Principal’s efforts on the riverwalk prompted John Ruan III to convert the old library into the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates; creation of a Western Gateway Park encouraged John Pappajohn to donate his personal outdoor sculpture collection to create one of the world’s finest outdoor sculpture gardens.

Government funding from Vision Iowa and Polk County’s Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino helped leverage private support to create amenities that include the Iowa Events Center with its Wells Fargo Arena, Hy-Vee Hall, Iowa Hall of Pride and a reconfigured Vets Auditorium; also the downtown Science Center of Iowa; a new downtown library; and the Pappajohn Education Center.

The activity spawned restaurants, hotels and retail from the East Village through the Court Avenue Market District into the west-side financial district.

The downtown housing boom began as a whisper in the late 1990s, swelled to a ripple a decade later and is now a full-on fusillade.

Virtually everything that has happened in the past two decades benefited from the wisdom of the Des Moines Vision Plan of the early 1990s in which New York architect Mario Gandelsonas envisioned a downtown backbone that continues to grow and flourish.

Nor would today’s Des Moines have been possible without a change in thinking that began in 2000 when Richard Florida, a new economy expert from Carnegie Mellon University, convinced Steve Zumbach and others that quality-of-life investments attract the new “creative class” of workers who are the true engines of economic growth.

If somehow the 1995 plan had foreshadowed all that has happened, few would have believed it.


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