Turning an unblind eye to the south

As the downtown core continues to strengthen, it’s nice to see that city planners can begin turning attention to the main arteries running into and out of the city. I met recently with City Councilwoman Christine Hensley and discussed the revitalization efforts for the Southwest Ninth Street corridor, among other topics. Hensley and John Cacciatore are co-charis of Friends of SW 9th, a public-private coalition of community organizations that formed last year and has been working to develop and implement corridor enhancement strategies. 

And it’s much needed. 

Hensley said that last September, a core group of about 35 volunteers met on a Saturday, broke into groups and walked along Southwest Ninth from downtown to Army Post Road, performing a visual analysis of every single property. If you’ve driven down the road, you don’t need the numbers to have a general understanding, but the numbers - shared with me by Des Moines Senior City Planner David Dunn - do bring some gravity to the situation. 

Of the 305 properties examined, roughly 50, or 17 percent, were deemed blighted properties. The median assessed value of a property was $159,000, which pales in comparison to Southeast 14th Street ($248,000) and Fleur Drive ($528,000). The “median year built” of the structures on Southwest Ninth is 1963, in comparison to 1988 for Southeast 14th and 1976 for Fleur. 

“It’s not going to be a landscaping beautification plan, as much as it is going to be about how do we improve the structures that are there,” Hensley said. “Where do we go in and acquire structures that are a blight on the street or public nuisances?” 

The group held its kickoff event in January, at which Polk County pledged $150,000 to the effort. The steering committee plans to hold bimonthly meetings and have a final plan mapped out by the end of the year - private-sector money will likely need to be raised once the plan is finalized. Hensley said the the end result of the initiative will be different than, for example, Ingersoll Avenue, because Southwest Ninth has such a mix of residential and commercial - 36 percent of the properties are single-family homes. That doesn’t stop Hensley from hoping for a similar result from the efforts. 

“I get calls weekly from people trying to figure out how to locate or acquire land on Ingersoll Avenue. It has that wow factor,” Hensley said. “And I want to have the same thing on SW Ninth. It’s the gateway to the city, but it’s a strange street.” 

Strange yes, but also an opportunity. And I think that opportunity is being led by the growth downtown. After all, a gateway isn’t much of a gateway, unless it leads to something.

Downtown confidence despite Younkers’ fire

I happened to be meeting with Hensley the Monday after the Younkers building fire, and of course she was saddened by the loss for the city. But, thanks to the experience of bringing Hy-Vee downtown, count Hensley among those that are sure something great will rise from the ashes and eventually fill the critical piece of downtown land. “I can tell you based on the (request for proposals) process we went through for (the land) where we now will have the Hy-Vee store, and the level of interest, that piece is going to be very, very attractive,” she said.

There’s a Herky or two among us

Des Moines City Councilmember Bill Gray swung past to say hello to Hensley, proudly wearing his Iowa Hawkeyes polo shirt. That’s when I learned some disturbing news about the newly elected Ward I council member who just began his term in January - he was Herky the Hawk from 1970 through 1973. I kept my allegiance quiet, as he outed two other former Herkys - Luke Lynch, who used to work in Sen. Harkin’s office, and Scott Casber, owner of Takedown Wrestling Media and PA voice of the Iowa Energy and Iowa Barnstormers. Alas, I’m sure there are more Herkys in hiding. Lawrence Cunningham, a former Cy mascot at Iowa State University, 2013 Business Record Forty under 40 honoree, and current director of business development at Catchfire Media LLC, might need to start rounding up a few former Cys in the business community.

Pranking it forward

We’re a bit past April Fools’ Day, so I’ll save a prank for next year. But, I did want to share a spark of an idea courtesy our publisher, Janette Larkin, who shared a great April Fools’ Day video on Facebook. In the video, a comedian sets up a prank at a homeless shelter. Cringing yet? OK, but this was a prank for good, I promise. In a twist, the comedian, with the help of a local restaurateur, turned the homeless shelter into a five-star restaurant, and treated the homeless to an amazing three-course meal and exquisite dining experience. They gave gift bags to each guest, and donated an additional $5,000 to the shelter. Someone on Janette’s post commented that we should do this in Des Moines. Janette of course looped in Tony Timm, director of Central Iowa Shelter Services, who said he was open to exploring the idea for the future. View the prank here.

The Silicon ‘Donation’ Prairie

Here’s a fun fact I learned via Kristi Knous, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, while she was here for a photo shoot a few weeks ago. A proud Knous shared that in 2013, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation - the largest in the nation, with assets of $4.7 billion - processed 4,200 gifts. By comparison, the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines - with $321 million in assets as of Dec. 31, 2013 - processed 4,905 gifts. That’s 705 more than the largest foundation in the nation. So, if Knous is looking a little tired on at the end of her work day, you know why. Oh, are you curious as to why Silicon Valley has so many assets? He goes by the name of Mark Zuckerberg, and he just dropped a cool $1 billion into a fund. Perhaps we should start rooting for Ben Milne’s Dwolla Inc. to be really successful.