A lot has changed in downtown Des Moines during the four decades I’ve lived here, but one of the most interesting shifts involves housing.

When I arrived in the mid-1970s, downtown housing was already in steep decline. Vacancies were rising and many of the apartments located above downtown businesses were empty. 

It wasn’t just Des Moines. Downtowns everywhere were in retreat. But Des Moines did something different. Business leaders here worked to hold on to major employers and even found a few new ones.    

Principal Financial Group Inc. created a corporate campus on the northern edge of downtown. Magazine publisher Meredith Corp. expanded its footprint on the west end. EMC Insurance Cos., Wells Fargo Financial, Allied/Nationwide insurance and Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield built new downtown campuses of their own. But none of that did much for downtown housing, which was a top priority of the Des Moines Vision Plan of the early 1990s. The Vision Plan called for apartments on the hillside north of Keosauqua Way and for widening the Raccoon River to create room for lake homes south of Meredith’s campus. 

Both ideas were too grand. Neither took root. 

Downtown wasn’t entirely devoid of housing. Bill Knapp had built Civic Center Court, a 141-unit, three-story apartment complex on the city block north of Des Moines Civic Center in 1981. He also encouraged an out-of-state developer to build The Plaza, a 215-unit high-rise of condominiums in 1986. Two high-rise elderly housing projects also went up during the 1980s.

In 1997, plans were announced to turn a warehouse south of Court Avenue into luxury condos, but sales at Brown-Camp Lofts were slow to take off. In 1999, two women entrepreneurs, Jodi Beavers and Leslie Gearhart, acquired property at 13th and Locust streets and created the Arlington Hallett Apartments. The 52 units filled almost immediately. Their success was encouraging, but slow sales of the high-priced units at Brown-Camp Lofts continued to discourage developers.

Finally in 2002, Minneapolis-based George Sherman announced plans to build condos and apartments along the Des Moines River south of Court Avenue. A fire in early 2003 delayed, but did not end, his effort.  Sales of his higher priced Waterstreet Brownstone condos were so successful that others began making plans for more downtown housing.  Nearly all the developers aimed for the top, though, and the high-end market was soon overbuilt. Several developers found themselves leasing, rather than selling, new units. 

As early as 2003, downtown consultant Richard “Red” Brannan began suggesting that older office buildings be converted to housing. 

Out-of-town developers tested the market, converting a few smaller buildings on the downtown fringe, before local builders took on the 10-story Hubbell Building, which was built in 1912 at Ninth and Walnut streets and the 12-story Liberty Building at Sixth and Grand avenues, built in 1923. 

The Hubbell Building was converted to low-income apartments and filled quickly. Condos in the Liberty Building didn’t do as well. Eventually parts of the building were converted to other uses, including a boutique hotel. 

Gradually, developers were figuring out what worked and what did not. 

Jack Hatch took a big leap of faith and put up a successful building in the East Village that included work-live lofts on the ground floor. Harry Bookey and Hubbell Realty Co. built successful projects along and behind the Court Avenue entertainment district. Sherman kept building, too.

Today, Des Moines’ central business core has an array of housing stock that ranges from subsidized apartments for low-income workers to market-rate rentals and condominiums in nearly every price range. And more is coming because downtown has something that developers love, a low vacancy rate. Only 2 percent of 1,372 downtown apartments are vacant, the lowest rate in Greater Des Moines, according to CBRE|Hubbell Commercial’s 2014 apartment survey.