Bill Gray is a man with a platform, but on one subject at least he is trying to “keep my opinions on a leash.”

The subject is an ambitious plan to redevelop the old Franklin Junior High School into a mixed-use development, with a big emphasis on mixed. Jeff Young’s plan mentions a boutique hotel, a number of small bars, entertainment, offices, public gardens and community meeting spaces.

This reporter and at least a few other folks are kind of taken with the concept, or maybe it would be easier say we are overwhelmed to the point that our common reaction is “wow, cool” or some form of those words. 

Young is nothing if not a big thinker, and he has surrounded himself with other big thinkers to plan and promote the $10 million project. He has a seasoned public relations pro on board, an admired architecture firm and high-powered engineers, all led by Teva Dawson’s Group Creative Services.

Franklin Junior High already has hosted some interesting events. A music video was shot there recently, and on April 18-19 a national exhibit called Undesign the Redline will be on display as part of Polk County Housing Trust Fund’s Affordable Housing Week. The interactive exhibit connects the intentional and systematic racial housing segregation of the 1930s to current political and social issues.

Still, it is easy to form an opinion on the redevelopment project based on first or second impressions. The reason is that this reporter doesn’t live in the neighborhood. I have a drive-through familiarity.

Bill Gray lives nearby — four doors away, he said. He represents the neighborhood surrounding Franklin Junior High at 48th Street and Franklin Avenue as well as all of the northwest corner of the city on the Des Moines City Council.

By unanimous vote, the city’s Plan and Zoning Commission recommended that the City Council approve a rezoning and planned unit development designation for the area, providing certain conditions are met, including noise and lighting requirements. The City Council is expected to take a final vote on the recommendation when it meets April 22. Gray plans to recuse himself from the vote.

With that said, during an interview about the planned federal courthouse for downtown Des Moines — a project that isn’t all that welcome in its neighborhood — Gray was asked about the Franklin Junior project.

He segued into an answer by saying that he had lived in the neighborhood since the early 1980s, after First Federated Church — now known as the Mission — bought the Franklin Junior High property and built a large expansion on the north side of the building. As the church and its events grew, so did the parking problems along the streets, across driveways, flowing out of the property’s parking lot. “And these were churchgoing people,” Gray said.

You might guess that Gray opposes the project, and he does. He is concerned about parking and noise. With talk of a theater at the property, “I don’t want to have signs glowing through my window 24/7,” he said.

“I saw what happened [with Federated Church]. I don’t want to go through that again.” 

On the other hand, he is “getting emails both ways” from constituents who support or oppose the project. If it is determined that Young’s project is in the best interests of the neighborhood, so be it. Gray does believe there is support on the City Council for the project to proceed.

His vote won’t be in the mix. “I’m just too close to the situation to give an unbiased vote,” Gray said. 

You can learn more about the project