Des Moines city officials have looked at designs for a $136 million federal courthouse on prime downtown development property and have seen a blank wall fronting one of the city’s main streets and blocking views of an iconic structure, along with bollards as security sentries along the Des Moines River.

In other words, it was not a pretty picture that was painted in a letter to the chief of the General Services Administration that protested the courthouse design. Mayor Frank Cownie signed the letter on behalf of the City Council, which approved it Monday.

And while the mayor and City Council are protesting the design, a small group of business leaders continues to protest the location of the federal courthouse at the site of the former Riverfront YMCA at 101 Locust St., long considered the last remaining prime development site downtown and along the river.

Polk County supervisors, Meredith Corp., Nixon Lauridsen and the Downtown Neighborhood Association also have drafted letters to Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and Rep. Cindy Axne expressing their dismay at the site selected last year by the GSA for the federal courthouse. Read the four letters here. Read the letter from the city here.

Philanthropist and businessman Lauridsen calls the project “an egregious misuse of taxpayer money -- an outrageous boondoggle designed to stroke the egos of the GSA and create a palatial work environment for the small number of public servants who will occupy the building.”

Those public servants are federal judges and support crews. The judges are said to have guided the GSA to the former Riverfront Y site after the agency, the development arm of the federal government, considered other sites, including an area in the city’s Market District that was promoted by city officials in partnership with businessman and developer Jim Cownie and MidAmerican Energy Co.

The letter from the mayor and city council complains that too much attention has been paid to the interior of the courthouse and not its exterior, public-facing sides along Locust Street and Grand and Second avenues.

For example, a private garden would be hidden behind a concrete wall fronting a sidewalk along Locust. For visitors to the World Food Prize -- located in the former Des Moines Public Library, which was among the city’s stately public buildings that were built at the turn of the 20th century as part of the City Beautiful movement -- their view to the north would be all walls.

A service entrance on Grand would be surrounded by fencing “rather than integrated into it,” according to the city letter. 

“Activation of our Riverwalk that has received so much recent local public and private investment and support continues to be a prime concern,” the letter says. “We are extremely disappointed that the promise of this key site activating the Riverwalk continues to be unfulfilled.”

According to the letter, promises made regarding the design have been broken, apparently sacrificed to federal budget cuts.

Rather than focus on design, the letters from Meredith, Lauridsen and the Downtown Neighborhood Association ask that the GSA refocus its attention on site selection, in particular the renovation and expansion of the existing federal courthouse at 123 E. Walnut St.

Polk County supervisors did not specify a location, but said in a letter that the GSA selection of the Riverfront Y site has undermined efforts to trigger “premier” private development. Supervisors were involved in a land swap in 2012 that led to renovation projects downtown and the construction of a convention center hotel. The Riverfront Y was a central part of that land dealing.

Lauridsen pulled no punches.

“Eliminating a $140 million construction project that is unnecessary, impairs the city’s economic, cultural and recreational initiatives, and roundly opposed by the people of Des Moines should be an easy call,” Lauridsen said in his letter.