When Brian O’Leary was a youngster, Douglas Avenue in northwest Des Moines was the place to go to have a good time.

There was bowling at Plaza Lanes and afterward a bite to eat at Porky’s Drive-In Restaurant or ice cream at the Dairy Queen. There was shopping or a movie at Merle Hay Mall. 

“Douglas was the place to be, and then it seemed everything just moved west,” recalled O’Leary, president of the Douglas Avenue Coalition, a nonprofit group formed in 2015 to put together a plan to rejuvenate the 2.4-mile corridor. “It’s time to bring some of that life back to the corridor.”

O’Leary formed the Douglas Avenue Coalition with representatives of neighborhood groups, businesses and nonprofits. Over the course of nearly four years, the group met with residents, business and property owners, and city and county officials to gain an understanding of a vision for the corridor. 

RDG Planning & Design and HRD Inc. were hired to develop a master plan for the corridor, bookended by Merle Hay Mall on the west and the Des Moines River on the east.  The corridor is part of the historic U.S. Highway 6 that stretches from California to Massachusetts.

The master plan was unveiled late last fall, and in February it received approval from both the Des Moines Plan and Zoning Commission and the City Council. 

Included in the plan are recommendations to slow traffic on Douglas by reducing the number of vehicle lanes on portions of the roadway. The plan also recommends making the corridor more attractive for pedestrian and bicyclists with wider sidewalks that are separated from the street with green spaces; sprucing up tired retail and commercial buildings and razing dilapidated structures; attracting new development of mixed-use buildings, townhomes and apartments; and creating a community gathering spot on the west side of the river that includes plazas for food trucks and natural play areas for children. 

The master plan is a guide for developers interested in investing in the area and for current property owners considering refurbishing structures, O’Leary said. Before that type of investment in the corridor occurs, however, changes need to be made to Douglas Avenue itself, he said.

“Even if a business was interested in relocating to Douglas Avenue, they probably wouldn’t right now,” O’Leary said. “Traffic just speeds by and it’s just not a visually appealing place to be.”

Douglas Avenue in its heyday

For much of the first half of the 1900s, Douglas Avenue was lined on both sides of the street with two-bedroom bungalows and two-story houses. In the 1950s, commercial development on both ends of the corridor took off. 

To accommodate the growing number of families in the area, Moore Elementary School was constructed at 50th Street and Douglas Avenue, opening in 1950. Plaza Lanes opened in the 2600 block of Douglas in 1957. The next year the street was widened to four lanes. In 1959, a drive-in restaurant opened at 4444 Douglas Ave., later becoming Porky’s. Also in 1959, Merle Hay Mall opened at the west end of the corridor. About two years later, Hy-Vee grocery opened store No. 1 at 2300 Euclid Ave. (Douglas turns to Euclid Avenue east of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway).

In the early 1970s, more retail development occurred along the corridor with the opening of Target in a strip shopping center at 2309 Euclid Ave. Farther west saw the opening of popular restaurants like the Husker.

Also during the 1960s, Interstate Highway 235 was built as an east-west corridor through much of the center of Des Moines, making it easier to travel through the city and taking traffic away from thoroughfares like Douglas Avenue. In 1976, Valley West Mall opened in West Des Moines.

By the early 1980s, the Douglas/Euclid Avenue corridor began declining.

“There was a lot of pride in the corridor in the 1950s and 1960s,” O’Leary said. “When things started shifting west, the deterioration began.” 
Once modern-looking strip centers began having a revolving door of tenants. Used vehicle lots popped up. In 2007, Moore Elementary was closed because of declining enrollment. 

Two years later, Porky’s was torn down to make way for a new Hy-Vee, a development that has yet to occur. In 2017, Plaza Lanes caught fire and remains an empty space on the corridor.

Numerous attributes along corridor

While the Douglas/Euclid Avenue corridor has numerous challenges, there also are assets that will help spur redevelopment and investment in the corridor, said Laura Kessel, a landscape architect and planner with RDG Planning and Design and project manager of the corridor master plan.

Moore Elementary reopened in fall 2015 after undergoing a $6.6 million renovation. Investments and upgrades continue to occur at Merle Hay Mall and the campus of the VA Central Iowa Health Care System at 30th Street and Douglas. 

And, probably most important, the four neighborhood associations connected to the corridor – Beaverdale, Lower Beaver, Merle Hay and Prospect Park – are interested in seeing improvements in the area, Kessel said.

The groups are “actively engaged in how to improve the quality of life for the people that live and work throughout these four neighborhoods,” she said. 

It was the push by the neighborhood groups that prompted city officials and others to begin to understand how some improvements to Douglas Avenue itself would benefit “everyone along this area,” she said.

Heavy traffic in corridor

An average of 20,000 vehicles a day travel along the Douglas/Euclid corridor, many traveling back and forth between Urbandale and Johnston and downtown Des Moines.

Often, the thoroughfare feels like a speedway, said Bill Gray, the Des Moines councilman who represents the area. 

“There’s got to be something that’s going to slow the traffic down a bit and make it so if people want to stop and spend some time and money in the area, they can do that without becoming fearful of getting run down,” he said.

Move DSM’s transportation master plan identifies Douglas as one of Des Moines’ most dangerous streets and has recommended converting sections of the road from four lanes to three including a two-way left-turn lane down the middle. Studies have shown that dedicated left-turn lanes can slow traffic speeds and reduce crashes by up to 70%, according to the Douglas Avenue master plan.

The master plan suggests the three-lane concept be tried between Merle Hay Road and Beaver Avenue. It also suggests that between Beaver and M.L. King, Douglas be narrowed by adding raised medians and dedicated left-turn lanes.  

Gray acknowledged there is concern that making the proposed changes will mean it will take longer to travel along the corridor. 

“We aren’t going to be backing people up for miles who are trying to get through these intersections,” he said. “But we do want to make it safe for people to stop and turn into a business if they want.”

Improvements are also needed to sidewalks, which in some areas are nonexistent or abut the street, Kessel said.

“We talk a lot about encouraging people to take care of themselves and get out and walk to destinations,” she said. “This isn’t a place that most people feel comfortable doing that.”

Pandemic stalls traffic study

The next step in improving the Douglas/Euclid corridor was to be a traffic study conducted this summer and fall, officials said.  

However, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has meant people are staying home, reducing vehicle traffic and making a traffic study inaccurate, Kessel said. 

Gray said the study could occur in the fall or early in 2021. The section of Douglas between Merle Hay and Beaver could be re-striped in the fall of 2021 and stay in place for a year. If the re-striping of the road shows traffic is slowing and businesses are benefiting from the move, the feature could be made permanent in 2025 or 2026, Gray said.

At that time work could also begin on installing wider sidewalks and adding medians and turn lanes in the area between Beaver and M.L. King, he said.

The cost of making the improvements has not yet been determined, officials have said.

As the master plan was being developed, the coalition conducted a survey that showed area residents and property owners want obsolete buildings demolished and want to see new development and incentives for private investment.

Darrell Sarmento, executive director of the Des Moines West Side Chamber, said all of that will likely be possible once improvements are made to Douglas Avenue.

“When developers see investment in streets and sidewalks going on, they will have more confidence to invest in the corridor,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing in the Ingersoll and Drake areas, and that’s what can happen here.”