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The final frontier


As much as I distrust positive thinking – it certainly didn’t help in my pursuit of Raquel Welch – something that drastic just might be necessary to solve Des Moines’ biggest problem.

In the past couple of decades, we were delighted to see sleek, attractive buildings going up downtown. It was like moving to a cooler place real gradually, without filling out change of address cards or finding cardboard boxes.

Today we have a slick skyline, we’re getting all kinds of good publicity through the “Best Places to …” lists, and another caucus season isn’t far off, when we get national attention without flooding a single neighborhood.

Unfortunately, we also have 3 million square feet of commercial office space to fill in Greater Des Moines, and it’s going to take a while.

To put it in perspective, it’s the equivalent of a floor that’s four inches wide and 9 million feet long. Or maybe that doesn’t help. Let’s try this: If you figure the average cubicle at 50 square feet, we’re going to need 60,000 new workers. If people refuse to move over from Cedar Rapids, we might have to reach into the FFA ranks to find that many, and we’ll need workstations that resemble tractor cabs.

The audience at the recent CB Richard Ellis/Hubbell Commercial annual market survey seemed a bit daunted by the challenge. First you go through three years of global recession, then they tell you it’s over except for a couple of details: People don’t have jobs, and business owners are afraid to spend. It’s like hearing that your potentially fatal disease is cured, but only as long as you keep doing cartwheels.

It’s not just that we’re competing against other cities in a slow economy; it’s that our available space is less than ideal. For one thing, our older buildings are held up with columns that are relatively close together. Floor plates didn’t open up until architects realized that the actual buildings were being constructed with steel, and that it was just the models that were made of Popsicle sticks.

Cutting-edge companies prefer wide-open working areas that create a sense of camaraderie, improve lighting and ventilation, and really come in handy on Paper Airplane Day. So when such companies come to see what we have available, they get sort of quiet and then reach into their briefcases and start glancing at a map of Minneapolis.

Our old buildings need extensive remodeling, and there’s a reason “extensive” looks and sounds so much like “expensive.” It’s what linguists refer to as “a heck of a coincidence.”

This is where large doses of positive thinking come in.

Or, there could be another solution.

Maybe you consider building implosions a bit extreme. But nobody liked the idea of gray cars at first, either, and now they’re quite popular.

We just have to accept that very few buildings deserve to stand forever, and realize that cities have so many buildings sticking up in the air that they’re slowing the Earth’s rotation. It’s hard to notice, because it’s gradual, but it does add up. Today really should be tomorrow, which is why you’re so hungry.

So we take down a few and replace them with up-to-date and shorter buildings that firefighting equipment can actually reach.

I admit to a fondness for building implosions, but I’m not suggesting this just for my own amusement. I’m not saying downtown Des Moines owes me anything, although I’ve never sprayed graffiti on her walls, I don’t litter, and when people ask me what it’s like to spend my days here, I’m proud to respond, “Oh, it’s not so bad.”

So don’t stage a series of controlled explosions just to make me happy. Do it for economic progress. Plus, it would look cool on YouTube.

Jim Pollock is the editor of the Des Moines Business Record. He can be reached by e-mail at jimpollock@bpcdm.com

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