Historic Neighborhoods, Where the Action Is

Parking garage with skywalk to office building in Des Moines

During the 1980s we lived in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa, about a 2-hour drive from Des Moines. We read the Des Moines Register, and all through that period there were articles mourning the loss of a beloved bar or restaurant as the old downtown was torn down to make way for bank and insurance towers. The street level became dominated by featureless walls and parking garage entrances. Pedestrian commerce was supposed to migrate to the second-floor level, where skywalks connected buildings and allowed people to cross streets out of the weather. A tall condo tower was built downtown, spurring hopes of revitalized activity. But the skywalks and connecting corridors within the buildings never developed a life of their own. They housed a few basic convenience stores and restaurants for the office workers, and at night they were empty.

Court Ave.

We returned to spend a few days in Des Moines in 2015, and the skywalk system was even drearier after the closure of the downtown Younkers department store. But what was most impressive about the city was the vibrant life that had developed in the few neighborhoods that managed to survive the rush to build high-rise office buildings. The Court Ave. district started out in the 80s with a few bars and restaurants, and now was full of them, especially sports bars. New low-rise condo buildings accommodated the young people who wanted to live nearby.

The other, larger neighborhood was East Village, across the river from the main downtown, between it and the Capitol. The old buildings, which were run-down 30 years ago, housed interesting and eclectic shops, from kitchen supplies to antiques to an eco store to clothing boutiques with their own unique style — and of course, several coffee shops. There was a sense of fun there; it was in East Village that we saw people dancing in front of a tiny Lebanese restaurant, and witnessed the beer wagon, a bar on wheels powered by bicycle pedals fitted to each barstool. New condos and a hotel were under construction there.

And here’s an amazing thing: while the property tax revenue per acre (first map below) is greatest in the high-rise district, the retail tax revenue per acre (second map) is greatest in the East Village.

(Source: Greater Des Moines: the Dollars and $ense of Land Use by Urban3, 2015. http://www.urban-three.com/.)

High-rise condos, Des Moines

I have noticed in Des Moines, and in St. Paul as well, that high-rise residential buildings don’t seem to have the positive effect on street-level commerce that low-rise residential buildings have. You would think that a condo tower with hundreds of people would generate the need for businesses, but residents in 3-4 story condos seem to interact with the neighborhood a lot more. Maybe the high-rise residents take the elevator to their parking garage and drive to the suburbs; I don’t know the answer.

Low-rise condos, Des Moines

Over on the other side of downtown is a sculpture garden (actually a sculpture lawn) created after a large block of old buildings was demolished. Across the street there were a few remaining row houses with a sign describing the fight to save them when the city wanted to demolish that block too.

I have a picture in my mind of small businesses fleeing the soul-less office park that downtowns have become, and gathering in the those few neighborhoods left intact. And it is neighborhoods that matter, not individual buildings or even blocks. Where there is a block of historic buildings with blank walls and parking lots across the street and next door, trying to create vibrancy there is like trying to make a fire with a single log. At least if there are historic blocks facing each other, the sense of enclosure makes pedestrians feel welcome.

If you want small businesses and a little fun and night-life in your town, do save some historic neighborhoods.