Des Moines has long been a hub for insurance industry giants and presidential politics, and with those powerhouses comes a certain commitment to embodying a model American city. “Des Moines is very proud of being connected globally, so they take time and effort to understand what’s going on,” said Ignacio Bunster, a principal of Philadelphia-based Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT). The firm is leading the city’s enlightened push to reclaim its Des Moines River waterfront and unite the downtown neighborhoods that had been part of the City Beautiful movement but undergone a postindustrial decline through the 1980s.
Like the city’s new Pappajohn sculpture garden, completed in 2009 thanks to the namesake family’s $25 million donation to the Des Moines Arts Center, the waterfront plan was set in motion by a private benefactor. In 2002, the Principal Financial Group pledged $10 million for a 1.2-mile waterfront pedestrian loop called the Principal Riverwalk, and has led the effort to raise an additional $15 million from other private sources. “The Riverwalk is one of the largest civic improvement projects the city is going to have, ever,” said Paul Mankins, a principal of Des Moines–based Substance Architecture, the firm chosen by WRT to design a riverfront pavilion and municipal pump station.
Though sometimes referred to as the redheaded stepchild of the Riverwalk plan, the pump station symbolizes the city’s evolving thinking about its urban planning. “A pump station in Des Moines is normally a bunch of gears surrounded by a concrete block wall,” said Mankins. But in 2008 when the city experienced what he describes as “the second 500-year flood in 15 years,” it got serious about integrating a pump house into the aesthetic of the Riverwalk. Now it will sit as a folded-up foil to Substance’s cafe kiosk, an angular zinc-louvered and glass structure in WRT’s Court Avenue Plaza. (It is probably the only project in the country in which the Army Corps of Engineers and sculptor Jun Kaneko, who will create a cast glass mural for the station’s exterior, will both participate.)
Another project that gives a glimpse of the city’s aspirations is the DART (Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority) Transit Hub at the southern edge of the central business district. Substance is designing the transit facility to replace the aging pedestrian transit mall, a failed relic of the 1970s. The building’s sloped green roof will rise out of the grassy triangle in front of it, forming a new gateway to the downtown and creating a site for light rail in the future.
The DART station is going forward thanks to federal funds available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, while the Court Avenue projects have received federal Energy and Water appropriations. “When they started talking about shovel-ready projects, these are the two that came to my mind,” said Mankins. “Literally, the construction documents had been done for two years.”
It may be breaking more ground on the back of the stimulus, but much of Des Moines’ strength lies in what it already has invested—nearly $2.8 billion on downtown development in the last ten years. In some ways, the Riverwalk is one of the last pieces of the city’s grand urban development scheme, based on a 1989 Vision Plan by New York firm Agrest and Gandelsonas, and their Vision Plan 2 completed in 2007.
The riverfront development will connect the city with Central Iowa’s 300 miles of wilderness trails, in addition to bringing still more international artists and architects to the stage. San Diego–based firm Safdie Rabines has already turned one of the city’s oldest railroad bridges into a pedestrian walkway at the southern boundary of the Riverwalk, and Arup has completed a swooping single-arch span at the trail’s northern edge, with separate paths for joggers and bicyclists.
Taking a cue from the riverfront development, the World Food Prize Foundation, founded in 1986 and akin to a Nobel Peace Prize for hunger relief, will occupy the century-old Des Moines Public Library building, left vacant when the library moved to a new space by David Chipperfield completed in 2006. The Prize’s new Hall of Laureates is being designed by Gensler, and will tie into the Riverwalk with an oval garden pathway designed by Chicago-based Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects.
Even though the Riverwalk project will not be completed until late 2011 or early 2012, the riverfront already draws 20,000-strong crowds for the city’s weekly farmers market and more than 250,000 attendees to its annual arts festival. Next year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation will hold its 2011 National Main Streets Conference in Des Moines, highlighting the city’s success as a model for commercial district revitalization.
The event will no doubt showcase the Riverwalk plan, as well as the many obstacles that must be overcome for cities like Des Moines to continue moving forward responsibly. For its part, Principal Financial Group has exemplified a global trend where major employers help their cities compete for residents’ loyalty. “Principal, in terms of how they express themselves architecturally, are the most advanced in Des Moines,” said Bunster of the group’s effect on the city. As a symbol of that corporate-cum-community collaborative spirit, WRT has designed a plan in which citizens would buy sandbag-shaped stones that will make up the river’s floodwalls. “Everybody is pitching in to make this happen,” he said. “It is almost like the raising of the barn by the town.”