Assistant Des Moines City Manager Matt Anderson was right when he described the city’s decision to acquire the five-story Nationwide Insurance building at 1200 Locust Street as “a once in a generation opportunity.”

Moving city operations from the current police station and city armory into the Nationwide space adjacent to the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in the Western Gateway Park will require much effort, but will also create huge opportunities.

The proposed moves come as the Greater Des Moines Partnership is preparing a new strategic plan for downtown.

That plan, which is not yet public, will include suggestions for creating dynamic new public spaces downtown “with bold ideas for the future” that will reconnect the area with surrounding neighborhoods, said the Partnership’s Tiffany Tauscheck in an email. 

The proposed city moves, she said, will add to the possibilities by increasing foot traffic in the Western Gateway Park area and opening up space for creative developments on the east side of the river. 

The park and riverfront that we know today are products of Des Moines’ 1990s Vision Plan, a brainstorming process by business and community leaders under the guidance of New York architect Mario Gandelsonas.

The vision planners met multiple times over the course of a year, and it took decades to complete their work. The process was not always pretty or straightforward, but it was responsible for five concepts we now recognize as the Western Gateway Park, the Principal Riverwalk, the East Village, the downtown loop bypass, and downtown housing. 

The city’s new moves could be equally significant, said Jim Cownie, a Vision Plan veteran, who pointed to ongoing efforts to expand downtown housing and mixed use options and to make the riverfront part of a new ICON Water Trails network with kayaking, canoeing, riverside restaurants and motor boat access.

In fact, the downtown riverfront has been a focus of city planners as far back as the 1890s when proposals included creating a chain of city parks and a golf course along the river. Most plans never got off the page, but that era’s creative culture was responsible for the construction of significant government buildings along the downtown riverfront 100 years ago. 

It began in 1903 with the city’s first public library in a building that now houses the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. Six public buildings, many in the Beaux Arts style, followed, including City Hall (1912), the police building (1920), a U.S. Courthouse (1929) and the city armory (1934).

That 93-year-old federal courthouse will be available for redevelopment next year after a new courthouse is completed across the river. 

When the police station and armory empty out, much of the east side of the downtown riverfront will be available for development on a scale that has not been possible for a century.    

I asked Michael Gartner, who headed Gov. Tom Vilsack’s Vision Iowa board, what he thinks should be done with the police station, armory and federal courthouse sites. 

The easy answer is some sort of hotel or housing development, he said, but what the area really needs is another development like the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates that attracts unique visitors. 

Gartner admitted he does not know what that attraction might be, but he said if the city’s business and community leaders put their heads together and brainstorm, like they did during the 1990s, they should be able to come up with something that complements and extends the reach of existing downtown attractions. 

There could be unique housing, like the city of Ames has with its former Roosevelt Elementary School, and there are obvious riverfront music venues, including Brenton Skating Rink. Removal of the Center Street Dam, which is part of the water trails plan, opens possibilities for synergies between the Lauridsen Skatepark and Brenton Rink.

My point is, once the conversation begins, there will be a flood of ideas. The hard part will be organizing, sorting and selecting the ones that create the best new vision for downtown.