Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Des Moines and Good Downtown Development

Dateline: 9:22 am February 18, 2010 Filed under:

Add Des Moines, Iowa to the list of successful downtowns. Yesterday’s article in the New York Times hits on several salient factors critical to success.

The list of recent projects in downtown Des Moines is impressive. In late 2010, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield will open a 600,000 square foot headquarters in downtown Des Moines. Two years ago, Nationwide Mutual Insurance completed a 1.2 millon square foot campus. The 34,000 square foot Pappajohn Education Center, part of the University of Iowa, opened in 2006, as did a new public library. The new John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park brings vitality to the public realm, and the Des Moines Social Club adds more culture to the downtown.

The numbers cannot be ignored, either. Downtown Des Moines has added 3.8 million square feet of office space in the past decade, a 45% increase, and also added 1,900 housing units, up 64% since 2000. Most impressive, downtown now has 75,000 jobs, up 20,000 since the 1990s. Someone show me another downtown with a 36% increase in employment in their downtown in the same timeframe.

Most critical, however, is how they did it. As Chris Leinberger points out in the New York Times article, the city leaders were able to find a “nonpartisan formula” for making decisions on taxes, infrastructure, parks and housing that support downtown construction. The city invested $2 million per year in infrastructure and land assembly. The article notes that public money leveraged $2 billion in private investment downtown since the 1990s. That is a fifty-fold return on investment ($2 million for 20 years). If all $2 billion were taxed at 4.6% (which, based on the county Assessor’s website, seems to be the commercial property tax rate in Des Moines) you get $92 million in taxes per year. That seems wildly optimistic and is worth a closer look, but even half or a quarter of that figure isn’t bad for a public investment of $2 million per year.

The key lesson here is the leadership in both the public and private sector. I like that they kept their eyes on the ball, working together to improve downtown Des Moines in a very balanced way. Thousands of new jobs, hundreds of housing units, a new park, library and arts venues are similar goals to those of downtowns across the country. When every single one happens it is all the more impressive. Let’s put downtown Des Moines on the map!

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