A project that has been discussed and planned among central Iowa leaders for more than a decade will come to fruition at the end of this year when the new $21 million DART Central Station opens in downtown Des Moines.
Officials from DART, or the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, along with those from the city of Des Moines and Polk County have worked for decades to move bus service in Des Moines away from the Walnut Street area in downtown.
“There’s always been talking about trying to do something with the Walnut Street Mall,” says Angela Connolly, chairwoman of the Polk County Supervisors and former chairwoman of the DART commission.
She says the stumbling block was the property where the Central Station is currently being built at 616 Cherry St. It was owned by Polk County taxpayers, and Supervisors had held on to the site because they were unsure whether to use it for an expansion of the Polk County Jail or the Polk County Courthouse.
“Finally the county decided since we owned the site, we would give the property to DART,” Connolly says.
DART paid $1 for the property.
New Central Station addresses lack of amenities
DART officials and elected leaders say the Walnut Street Transit Mall is out of date — it was constructed in 1985 — and lacks basic amenities such as a location to buy bus passes, restrooms and a climate-controlled waiting area. The current transit mall does not have designated locations, other than crosswalks at the street corners, for riders to cross the street between bus transfers, so oftentimes riders run across the middle of the street to catch their next bus.
“It’s not ideal for the customer, and it’s not ideal conditions for us operationally,” says Elizabeth Presutti, general manager of DART about the Walnut Street Transit Mall.
In addition to the lack of amenities, she says if a bus stalls on Walnut Street, other buses cannot get around it causing route delays.
There are an estimated 5,000 unique visitors to the Walnut Street Transit Mall every day based on boarding counts, she says.
DART officials hope the new Central Station will improve a rider’s experience so that he or she rides the bus more often and that new riders are drawn to using bus service, Presutti says.
“It’s really an exciting opportunity for us here at DART, and the Central Station will be a new centerpiece for us,” she says.
The Central Station will be a state-of-the-art facility that will include numerous amenities such as:
• Digital signs that show departures and arrivals in real time for bus riders. Global Positioning System technology will be installed in DART buses that will make this possible by the time the facility opens later this year. The real-time information will be available online and on customers’ cell phones.
• Climate-controlled waiting areas inside the building with space for 200 people
• Public restrooms
• A customer service desk, where riders can purchase bus passes, get IDs and receive schedule information. There currently is no other location in downtown Des Moines where bus passes can be purchased.
• A lost and found
• Sheltered boarding platforms and walkway canopies
• Indoor bicycle storage and a changing room that will be operated and managed by DART. Presutti says there will be racks for riders to store their bicycles, as well as a changing room. Use of the service will be available through a paid membership.
• A 1,200-square-foot rental space in the northeast corner of the building for a vendor, which as of press time had not yet been signed. Presutti says a coffee shop or deli would be ideal for the location and the market. In addition to bus riders, there will be between 30 and 40 DART employees on site throughout the day, as well as individuals who go to the county jail or courthouse. “We think it would be a great location (for a vendor) with a built-in market already available,” she says.
• Bays for 15 buses, which will give drivers the ability to be independent of other buses and better adhere to their schedule. Each bus will have its own assigned bay. Buses will enter and exit from Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street.
• A B-cycle kiosk on the northeast corner of the site, where bicycles can be rented for use in the downtown and East Village areas
• Public meeting rooms
• Four pieces of public art
• Close proximity to the downtown skywalk system. The facility has been constructed so that a future skywalk connection or connections could be installed on the north side of the building.
Presutti says the new technology also will allow riders to use real-time data to plan their trips and plug info into Google maps to get their trip routed for them using public transit.
Another added feature, Presutti says, is that DART officials will work with the Des Moines Police Department to provide an officer on duty at the Central Station during bus service hours, which run from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Currently, Operation Downtown pays for an officer presence in the area, but the position is not specifically designated to the Walnut Street Transit Mall, she says.
Buses will begin operations at new site by end of 2012
Construction on the Central Station was about 80 percent complete as of late July. Ground broke for the project in May 2011. The new Central Station also is located one block north of the Rock Island train depot, which would serve as the Des Moines station should rail service be created between Chicago and Omaha.
The Central Station was constructed using environmentally-friendly design. It has geothermal heating and cooling, as well as solar technology. The building is expected to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating of gold or better.
LEED is a certification process that verifies a building was designed and built meeting certain criteria for eco-friendly design, construction, operation and maintenance.
“It’s really coming along,” Connolly says. “It looks nice on that corner, and it’ll make a huge improvement.”
The site was previously home to the Schlitz Building and was used as a location where county employees parked vehicles and stored equipment.
DART officials have targeted a grand opening ceremony in late October. The customer service desk would be open by early to mid-November, and bus routes would be moved and begin operations out of the Central Station on Nov. 23.
As part of the opening of the Central Station, all routes are being redesigned and will move off of Walnut Street and to the Central Station. To view a complete list of route changes, go to www.ridedart.com/november-2012-service-changes.cfm.
The Central Station construction is being paid for through multiple state and federal grants from DART’s capital projects budget: a $4 million I-JOBS grant, and two federal grants of $6.5 million and $10 million. The capital projects budget is separate from DART’s operating budget, which pays for everyday expenses such as drivers’ salaries and benefits, fuel and ongoing maintenance.
City, county leaders now focus on Walnut Street
City and county leaders along with the Downtown Community Alliance want to reclaim Walnut Street for street-level business, which has fallen off during the course of several decades.
Connolly says the bigger issue now is revitalizing Walnut Street and trying to get people to come back downtown for shopping. She says removing the buses from the street will make traffic flow better downtown for some of the more than 80,000 people who work here.
Redevelopment of Walnut Street “was the ultimate goal” with moving the bus transit site to a different location, “and now it’s happening,” Connolly says.
She says she hopes within the next five years redevelopment will begin along Walnut Street.
According to a September 2011 report prepared for the Operation Downtown, the plan would be to create a “new” Walnut Street that “would attract retail, restaurant(s) and entertainment uses to its main-floor storefronts.”
Two informational meetings were held in 2011 with city officials, consultants and property owners to gather ideas for the report. Ideas for the street redevelopment included returning it to two-way traffic, adding bicycle lanes, as well as the possibility of on-street parking, and closing Walnut between Third and Fifth streets for special events.
The report, created by genus landscape architects, recommended the revitalized Walnut Street become more “urban” and “contemporary” than the East Village and more “refined” than the Court Avenue District. It should be designed to have more restaurants than bars and appeal to an older market than Court Avenue.
It was also suggested in the report that Walnut Street become a true walking street by drawing pedestrians with unique street vending and entertainment opportunities such as festivals or street performers, a possible weekday market and weekend summer performances.
A conceptual design plan is expected to be completed this year. The design plan will give project cost estimates and recommendations for how to pay for the project. Construction could start as soon as 2013 if plans fall into place.