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What lies beneath


Despite explosive demand for Creative Visions’ classes and training programs, the Des Moines non-profit’s vision for expansion has been held hostage by the fact that a gas station once operated on its property.

Within the next few weeks, Creative Visions founder and CEO Ako Abdul-Samad hopes to hear that his Forest Avenue property qualifies for participation in the state’s Innocent Landowner Fund, which would pay up to $1 million to clean up the site.

“It’s going to help us to identify some finances, and actually get the issue resolved,” Abdul-Samad said.

Erasing environmental question marks will be a key factor in redeveloping the Forest Avenue corridor, which has been a goal of both the city of Des Moines and Drake University.

Through a $100,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, city officials have been working with business owners in the Drake neighborhood for the past year to perform soil and groundwater testing to identify contaminated sites. The 20-block area extending west on Forest and University avenues between 13th and 32nd streets has been home to 44 service stations over the years.

“What we’re finding, thankfully, is that most of the sites are not in as dire a shape as we thought,” said Larry James Jr., president of the Drake Neighborhood Assocation. “That knowledge is valuable, because now we can provide that information to potential developers.”

The funding can provide an “exit strategy” for either redevelopment or sale of blighted properties that have languished because developers were unwilling to risk investing in a contaminated site, said Elly Walkowiak, an environmental specialist with the city’s economic development office. “In either case, you’re going to solve the problem,” she said. “Our hope is that the landowners will have the ability to qualify for quick redevelopment.”

The city’s strategy for Forest Avenue has been to use only the minimal amount of EPA grant money necessary to determine whether sites may need further investigation, Walkowiak said. Then, through the Innocent Landowner Fund, qualified landowners can access funds to both further investigate the extent of contamination on their properties and pay for cleanup. The state-administered program, which currently has about $26 million available, was created in 1995 and is primarily from environmental settlements reached with the major oil companies.

Abdul-Samad is one of three Forest Avenue property owners who have qualified to potentially use the Innocent Landowner Fund. To qualify for the voluntary program, there must be a confirmed petroleum leak from tanks that have been out of use since Oct. 26, 1990, and the current owner must not have caused that leak.

“That’s why the EPA survey is so important, because it helps to confirm whether there has been a release (so that an owner can apply for funding),” Walkowiak said.

A co-payment from the landowner is required, which can be as little as $400 if the former gas station site was operated by any of the major oil companies that paid into an EPA global settlement fund. If the tank was operated by an independent oil company, the landowner would make a 20 percent co-payment, up to a maximum of $14,400.

“But if you have a huge problem, that’s cheap,” Walkiowiak said. “So for $400, a landowner could potentially get this taken care of.”

Of the 13 sites investigated, five had contaminant levels low enough to require no further action. Several other sites were found to have plastic water lines that will need to be replaced because of the potential for petroleum compounds to filter through the pipe.

As a next step, the city spent $25,000 for Economic Research Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm, to perform a retail market study of the Forest Avenue corridor between Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and the Drake campus. Results from that study are expected in January, said Mary Neiderbach, a senior planner with the city’s community development department.

“Then we’ll have some hard facts to give to a potential developer,” she said. Based on the study results, the city council would need to approve an urban renewal plan, which would allow the city to buy land in that corridor for redevelopment.

Also in January, $300,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds will become available to begin cleaning up some of the sites. The first to be tackled will be a vacant, former gas station lot at 22nd Street and Forest Avenue, along with two nearby lots.

“I think if we can get these three areas redeveloped, it would jump-start the whole area,” said Dolph Pulliam, Drake University’s director of community outreach and a member of the Forest Avenue Task Force.

“Our interest is in revitalizing that corridor and making it a better entryway for Drake University,” Pulliam said. “I think there are some ideal opportunities for developers there; I think some mixed-used properties would be ideal for that property.”

Work recently began near the campus on University Place Lofts, a mixed-use retail and housing development on University Avenue. Pulliam said that additional student housing near campus on Forest Avenue is also a possibility.

Additionally, surveys have indicated Drake students would like to see restaurants, small shops and entertainment options such as a bowling alley or video rental store along Forest, he said. Pulliam said the university also would like to see a bicycle path along Forest that extends through the campus.

“That’s a quality-of-life project that would enhance both the campus and the community,” he said. “If we do all those things, we’ve eliminated the perception that this area of the city isn’t safe. When more people are out on the street, they feel safer. And that’s what we’d like to create.”

Next grant focuses on Capitol East, Fairground neighborhoods

Encouraged by its experience with a pilot grant it used to test former gas station sites along Forest Avenue, the Des Moines City Council earlier this month applied for a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study similar sites in the Capitol East and Fairground neighborhoods. Both areas are currently under consideration for commercial redevelopment projects.

“In our proposal, we did specify these two neighborhoods, but there are more areas possible,” said Elly Walkiowiak, an environmental specialist with the city’s economic development office. “At this point, we’re trying to encourage landowners with property along the arterial streets that want to redevelop to call us.”

The program is valuable because it provides funding that’s not otherwise available for addressing environmental cleanup, said Carol Bower, executive director of the Neighborhood Development Corp. “So we would rely heavily on these programs to assist,” she said. “I’m certain that any for-profit developer that would come in would have the same feeling.”

The private, non-profit organization works on commercial development for Des Moines’ distressed neighborhoods, funded through a 28E agreement with the city. In addition to the Forest Avenue project, it’s working with a developer that wants to build a hotel across from the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

With the limited federal funding, “I would expect that the hotel site would be entered into a competitive process for the funds,” Bower said. “We would hope that the funding would be made available to us for our projects, but if there are more important projects than ours, I believe they would be considered.”

The city expects to learn whether it has received the competitive grant by April. Walkowiak said the city’s chances of getting the funding are “excellent,” given its past track record in working with the agency.

“We have a good track record, and we have a good strategy,” she said.

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