The city of Des Moines will likely sell the Argonne Armory building (pictured above) at 602 Robert D. Ray Drive and the police station (pictured below) at 25 E. Court Ave. Both structures were built during what is known as Des Moines' City Beautiful period. Photos courtesy of city of Des Moines
 
The redevelopment of three historically significant downtown Des Moines buildings will likely bring new vitality to the city’s riverfront, attracting new businesses and possibly residents to the area, a city official said.

The Des Moines City Council this week approved a purchase agreement to acquire an office building at 1200 Locust St., a move that will consolidate city and police operations in one facility. If the proposed purchase moves forward, the city will likely sell the Argonne Armory building at 602 Robert D. Ray Drive and the police station at 25 E. Court Ave., officials have said.

In addition, the federal government is in the process of disposing of the courthouse at 123 E. Walnut St. (A new courthouse is under construction at 101 Locust St.)

The three buildings are located in the city's East Village, a thriving district that includes restaurants, retail shops, hotels and residences.

"Those three buildings are all 40-hour-a-week buildings," Matt Anderson, Des Moines’ deputy city manager, said. "They are closed after 5 p.m. and there’s no activity around them in the evenings or on weekends. … If you can get residents or hotel guests in one or more of those buildings, it will add a lot of vitality to the area and help support the retail and restaurants in the East Village."
The three buildings were all constructed during what is known as Des Moines’ City Beautiful period, a time between the mid-1890s and late 1930s when a concentrated effort was made to improve the appearance of downtown’s Des Moines riverfront. The buildings were all designed to follow the Beaux-Arts style architecture that was popular at the time.
In 1988, the riverfront area was designated the Civic Center Historic District and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Buildings in the historic area include the courthouse, police station and Armory.

The city of Des Moines doesn’t yet have a timetable for disposing of the Armory or police station. The federal government, though, is currently considering three proposals for public uses of the courthouse that was built between 1927 and 1929. The identities of the entities that have submitted proposals will remain secret until reviews of are completed, a spokesperson for U.S. General Services Administration has told the Business Record.

Possible uses of city buildings

Anderson said there are several possible uses for the two city buildings including converting them to housing or a boutique hotel.

In 2018, city officials considered selling the Armory and sought proposals from developers on possible uses for the structure, which was built in the mid-1930s. Three proposals were submitted including one that would have converted the building into two music venues.

Two other proposals would have transformed the structure into apartments or condominiums.

Plans to sell the Armory were shelved after city officials learned it would be too expensive to build an annex across the street from City Hall, located at 400 Robert D. Ray Drive. The annex would have housed city departments located in the Armory.

Building a new police station also is expensive, Anderson said.

"It’s the worst time possible to be building an office building," Anderson said during this week’s council meeting. "On the flip side, for buying existing space, we’re entering the market at about the best time possible."

Anderson estimated it would cost between $30 million and $40 million to construct an office building to house city departments. Cost to build a new police station has been estimated at over $100 million. It will cost the city $40.6 million to buy the office building and nearby parking garage from Nationwide. It’s not known how much it will cost to remodel the office space to fit city needs.

Also not known is how much developers would pay for the Armory building or police station.

Redeveloping historic buildings

The city of Des Moines has a long history of finding new uses for historic buildings, said Jennifer Irsfeld James, a Des Moines-area architectural historian and preservation consultant.

"Reusing buildings is very common and very positive in cities across the country," James said. "Des Moines is no exception."

Polk County administrative offices are located in a historic building that originally was a post office. The city’s original downtown library is now home to the World Food Prize Foundation. The former Des Moines Fire Department headquarters and station No. 1 was redeveloped for use by the Des Moines Social Club and is once again being repurposed, this time for office space, community events and a coffee shop.

"Reuse is definitely a positive," James said. "There are great incentive programs … that encourage and provide financing for the sensitive re-use of historic buildings. … The benefit of these buildings is that they were very well built and they’re strong contenders for adaptive reuse."
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