Doug Pierce, Mayor of Norwalk
Doug Pierce, Mayor of Norwalk

It’s easy to forget, what with the current fashion for repurposing old office buildings into apartments with the promise of retail to follow, but office properties continue to be the backbone of the downtown core, panelists at today’s Business Record Trends & Issues forum said.

And taxpayer incentives are the crucial support needed to sustain progress.

Downtown Des Moines hosts 70,000 workers every day, and it would be nice if a larger share of those workers selected the area as the place where they want to live and play, as well as work, said Mary O’Keefe, senior vice president at Principal Financial Group Inc., a company launching a major rehab of its office presence.

With an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people living downtown, there remains a need for steady growth in housing options and the amenities to support downtown livers, said Glenn Lyons, president and CEO of the Downtown Community Alliance. He said the critical number for having a thriving downtown was around 20,000 residents.

That number could light up the city 24 hours a day, and provide the purchasing power to support retail shops and continue pumping revenue into the entertainment, dining and drinking scene.

Rick Tollakson, president and CEO of Hubbell Realty Co., which has found the magic formula for building or rehabbing both rental and for-sale living accommodations downtown, predicted that downtown could support 30,000 people. There were no gasps in the crowd of 185 that assembled at The Wright Place in Norwalk.

In response to a question that there is a perception that downtown has more low income housing that market rate or upscale properties, Matt Anderson, the assistant Des Moines city manager who has been involved in downtown development in the public and private sector, said the area has struck a balance between the two. Many properties feature a combination of market-rate and rent-adjusted housing.

Jennifer Cooper, vice president and manager of commercial real estate for Bankers Trust Co., said lending will continue to be a challenge, with developers relying on a range of tax credits to fill gaps between loans and equity in projects.

Mark Patterson, commercial deputy in the Polk County assessor's office, served as moderator for the event.