Development in downtown Des Moines has picked up in the past 12 to 20 months to the point that city officials are now amazed by the varied projects that have been completed or are currently under construction.
“The list is impressive because one, the width and breadth of it, and secondly, we had some quiet, but it’s no longer quiet,” says Andrea Hauer, economic development coordinator for the city of Des Moines.
From January 2012 to Sept. 3, 2013, the total valuation of work completed is $221 million in the downtown area. During that time there also were 484 new housing units added, according to information provided by the city’s community development office.
“I have mixed-use buildings in planning, residential buildings in planning, as well as specialty,” says Jake Christensen of Christensen Development, who was involved with the Hyatt Place, AP Transfer Lofts, e300 and Liberty Tower projects. “I think that’s a testimony to the real strength of the downtown market, that we have many different types of users and people that are being drawn to it.”
Among the projects — either completed or under way:
A $32 million Hampton Inn hotel project to be located south of Court Avenue along the Des Moines River.
The Riverwalk Hub restaurant on the Principal Riverwalk opened this summer. It’s part of the Hub Spot, which includes the restaurant, plazas and rental space. Future plans include food carts that will operate in the plaza area.
“It’s one of the new icons of Des Moines,” Hauer says of the area along the west side of the Des Moines River.
The rebirth of several older office buildings has meant new types of housing for the downtown area.
The Des Moines Building is being converted into 146 high-end lofts with social lounge areas for residents and a green rooftop with penthouses. The apartments are designed for residents in their 30s or younger who don’t want, or have, many personal items. It will be finished by the end of the year.
The Equitable Building is being converted into 140 luxury condominiums and lofts with social lounge areas, a community center and a green roof with penthouses. It has one floor of retail space that connects to the city’s skywalk system.
The Fleming Building, 604 Walnut St., built in 1909, was converted into mixed use with commercial and residential space. The first two floors are designated for retail, office and restaurant uses, and the remaining eight floors were renovated into 80 market rate apartments.
The former downtown firehouse at 900 Mulberry St. is being renovated and remodeled into the new Des Moines Social Club. The historic character of the firehouse will be retained, and other spaces will be converted into collaborative workspaces for non-profit groups, an art gallery, spaces for artistic classes, bars, restaurants and more. The back part of the fire station, which served as a mechanical operations area for the fire station, will be converted into a theater. Another area will become a Firefighter Memorial.
“I think it’s livening up a part of downtown that hasn’t been touch,” Hauer says. “It’s doing it in ways we don’t have anywhere else.”
Orchestrate Hospitality, the people behind Centro, Django, Zombie Burger and other downtown establishments, has signed on to put a restaurant in the space.
Norden Hall, a small rowhouse at 709 E. Locust St., will move to a new location in late September in East Village at 425 E. Grand Ave. and then undergo a $1.2 million renovation that will include a new restaurant. The building was constructed in 1880 as a single-family home. In the 1930s and 1940s, it became known as the Norden Hall and was a gathering location for local Scandinavians for singing and dancing performances. It once again became a single-family home in the early 2000s until recent years when it was vacated and was going to be torn down as part of a state expansion.
Christensen became involved because he didn’t want to see a building of that age destroyed.
“It’s too important,” he says. “We needed to put the effort forward to maintain that building. It had been in the East Village its entire life, and it was important to keep it there.”
The building’s orientation will remain the same. It will be renovated to save its hardwood floors, and the patina of the exposed brick will make for an interesting restaurant location, Christensen says.
Christensen’s development company, along with Premier Development Group, is involved in the redevelopment of the former Heather Manor site at 600 E. Fifth St. Christensen last month received approval to have the property rezoned to allow the dining area on the first floor to be renovated into a public restaurant.
Christensen says the downtown housing market is “unbelievably strong,” and that there’s been a waiting list at the e300 building he helped develop since it opened.
Developer Tim Rypma is working with investor Jim Cownie on a new East Village housing and retail project at 350 E. Locust St. The East Village Growth Partners will build a $7.9 million, five-story building with retail shops and 20 apartments. Construction is set to begin this fall.
The Des Moines Bicycle Collective moved from its downtown location to a newly-renovated site in the East Village at 506 E. Sixth St.
Martin Luther King Junior Parkway has been expanded across the Des Moines River as part of the Southeast Connector project. The next phase will have MLK expanded to Southeast 30th Street, eventually connecting to Highway 5.
Sherman Associates will undertake a $16.5 million renovation of the Randolph Hotel, 204 Fourth St., and convert it into new housing and business space for the Court Avenue district. Construction could begin this winter.
Alexander Co., a Madison, Wisc., developer that specializes in historic preservation, has begun a $36 million renovation project of the former Younkers department store. The Younkers Tea Room will be preserved during the process. The building will be converted into 120 residential apartments designed for lower-income renters and two floors of retail shops. The project is expected to be complete by late 2014.
A three-way land swap took place between the Polk County Supervisors, the Riverfront YMCA and Wellmark. The exchange meant Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield took ownership of the former Polk County Convention Complex, which would then sell the building to YMCA officials as part of the plan to construct a new $22.5 million downtown YMCA that would be named after Wellmark. The facility could be open by January 2015.
The current Riverfront YMCA could be demolished to make way for new riverfront development.
Polk County officials received a former office building (a former J.C. Penney) at 222 Fifth Ave., in the deal, which they will convert into a courts building.
Principal Financial Group is undergoing a $397 million overhaul of its downtown Des Moines campus. The entire project, which is designed to modernize Principal’s facilities, will not be completed until August 2020. The first phase of construction includes the buildings at 600 Seventh St., 801 Grand Ave. and 711 High St.
The Des Moines Redevelopment Co. has sought qualifications for the development of a 450-room, four-star convention hotel that would be adjacent to the Iowa Events Center.
Hubbell Realty plans a $35 million housing development called Cityville located south of downtown at Southwest Ninth and Murphy streets. It will have 288 apartments and commercial space. The recession had stalled the project, but the company is moving forward with the project and plans to begin work this fall.
Near Cityville will be Gray’s Landing, a $200 million housing development with townhouses, condos and commercial buildings.
There are plans to redevelop the former Judge Roy Bean’s Eatin & Drinkin Emporium, which has been vacant since 2008. Rypma and Norris Partners LLC are considering redeveloping the site into a bar or restaurant on the first floor and offices on the second floor. Construction is expected to begin this fall and be completed by early 2014.
Construction will soon begin on a transformation of Nollen Plaza into Cowles Commons. The fountain will be removed from the site and replaced with a new entertainment area that can host concerts, festivals, markets, outdoor films and more. The Crusoe Umbrella will remain and a new sculpture will be added.
Office space vacancies decrease in downtown area
A couple of years ago, city officials were concerned with the amount of vacant office space in the downtown area.
According to CB Richard Ellis Hubbell’s 2011 real estate market survey, 12.9 million square feet of commercial office space was in the downtown area. Of that, 13.4 percent was vacant. This was up from 9 percent the previous year; however, an additional 1 million square feet of office space was added to downtown with the new Wellmark campus.
That same survey from 2013 shows 12.3 million square feet of commercial office space now in the downtown area. About 12 percent is now vacant, though city officials say the picture is much brighter.
Hauer says some of the former office space, including the Des Moines and Fleming buildings, has been converted into residential housing. Some office buildings that were 25 percent vacant a couple of years ago are now about 10 percent vacant, which Hauer says is closer to the standard.
A couple of other office buildings have now been converted into what is being called Des Moines’ Silicon Alleys or Silicon Sixth. The former Bank of America Building is where Startup City Des Moines, a tech incubator that supports startup businesses, is located. Once those businesses “graduate,” they move into office space in the Midland Building.
“There’s a lot of that happening, which I think is a really good positive,” Hauer says.
Christensen, the developer, says that the more restaurants, retail and other unique opportunities that arise in downtown, the more people it will draw.
“It’s just going to make people even more inclined to live there,” he says. “It’s already pretty walkable, and as we get all of these empty spots filled in, more and more people will want to live there.”