• Business Record columnist• Email: daveelbert@bpcdm.com• Phone: (515) 988-3787© 2012 Business Record
• Business Record columnist
• Email: daveelbert@bpcdm.com
• Phone: (515) 988-3787
© 2012 Business Record

Something that has been missing from downtown Des Moines the past three years – playable, open green space – may be on the verge of returning to the central city.

Before the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park was installed in Western Gateway Park three years ago this month, the two-block-long park had become an inviting space where downtown residents and workers tossed Frisbies and held impromptu games of soccer and football.

I’m not suggesting that creating the sculpture park was a mistake. On the contrary, I believe it is one of the most remarkable improvements the city has produced since I moved here in 1975.

Today, you can pass Gateway Park at any daylight hour, and well into the evening, and find clusters of people admiring the $40 million of world-class sculpture that the Pappajohns donated to the Des Moines Art Center.

The fact that the artwork is so visibly accessible, even to commuting workers from their car and bus windows, says a lot about this city’s openness to new ideas, new people and new cultures. (That accessibility, by the way, was insisted upon by the Pappajohns before they committed to the project.)

But the installation of the sculptures came at a price; everything always does. It moved out the people who had begun using the park as an adult playground during their lunch breaks, after work and on weekends.

Those young people’s presence also added a dimension that had been previously lacking in Des Moines.

During the two years or so before the sculptures arrived, locals had used the space the same way that space on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., or Central Park in New York is used.

Today, there is a regrettable absence of block-wide green spaces in the downtown area. There are pocket parks scattered around the downtown area, and the campuses of major employers – Principal, Meredith, Wellmark and Nationwide – have green spaces available to their workers.

But for the rest of us, who sometimes want to stretch our throwing and kicking muscles, there really isn’t anywhere big enough.

That could, and hopefully will, change soon.

Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield owns nearly a full city block of vacant land just west of its new headquarters on the north side of Grand Avenue. During the construction of Wellmark’s new offices, the site was occupied by construction trailers. Today, the site is vacant.

A few blocks farther west, Meredith Corp. recently purchased the city block previously occupied by Iowa Paint Manufacturing Co., and the media company is in the process of removing surface parking lots to make that space more attractive.

Long-term plans call for the vacant properties owned by Wellmark and Meredith to be developed with high-value, mixed-use buildings.

But until they are, the sites could be converted to playable land for a small investment by the owners and surrounding businesses.

I’m suggesting this be done by the private sector, because the city of Des Moines is in no position to take on new expenses.

It is worth noting that the city benefits from any improvements, even small ones, like planting grass seed on vacant lots, especially if the effort attracts the kinds of playful activities that were found in Gateway Park before the sculptures arrived.

The Meredith and Wellmark spaces would serve a temporary purpose until larger green spaces in the downtown area are identified and developed.

There are plenty of possibilities in the areas south of the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway bypass, or north of the bypass on the on the east side.

But it will be a while before those areas are developed. In the meantime, these spaces could be great placeholders.