Public forum focuses on need for pragmatism in local historic preservation

Historic preservation has been making headlines in Des Moines recently, and it was those newsy issues of demolition of historic structures on Walnut Street by insurance company EMC and the potential redevelopment of the Riverfront YMCA that dominated a conversation about historic preservation sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Des Moines Rehabbers Club Tuesday night. 

Recognizing the relationship between historic preservation and creating vibrant, walkable neighborhoods in the central city, Urban Ambassadors chose to combine its monthly meetup with the forum to support discussion of these important issues. The Register's Joel Aschbrenner moderated the discussion, and panelists included developer Jake Christensen, City Councilor Christine Hensley, state historic preservation official Steve King, and preservation advocate Jack Porter. 

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It was Councilor Hensley who perhaps broke the most significant news of the night, suggesting a proposed city ordinance delaying the demolition of buildings constructed more than 80 years ago (up from 50 years as originally proposed) could come before the City Council yet this year.  The waiting period would require demolition of historic buildings to be halted for 10 days so that historic preservation experts could document and consider the significance of a building.  The decision to demolish the building would remain in the hands of its owner.

The panel took on the issue of what should qualify a building as historic, which in most cases requires the building be older than 50 years, be of a notable architectural style, or be connected with a significant person or event.  But panelist Jack Porter suggested the city should go further, also considering the "net gain" from a new construction project that requires replacing an old building.

Developer Jake Christensen, responsible for a variety of new construction and historic preservation projects in the city, applied that logic to the demolition of 3 historic buildings along Walnut Street to make way for a new multi-purpose EMC insurance facility planned to include a data center and wellness center.  He said considering the "overwhelming economic impact of EMC as an employer" and the company's need to attract and maintain its workforce, the decision to construct the new building on the site was "compelling" even as he appreciated the buildings that were on the site.

Councilor Hensley agreed, noting that the city sought "balance" on its historic preservation action and that she generally favored leaving decisions about the fate of buildings to their owners.

The conversation took place in a larger context in which, as one audience member pointed out, most of the region's historic buildings are in Des Moines, and therefore costs of historic preservation affect the economic competitiveness of the city relative to its suburbs.

"Stewardship is the key word here," said panelist Steve King, after pointing out the many tradeoffs related to developing site like the downtown YMCA.  He said even as an architect trained in historic preservation, some of the renovations he might propose for the YMCA building could change it enough to make it ineligible for historic preservation tax credits, which are often critical to helping historic buildings survive redevelopment.

King made the larger point that he felt advocates of historic preservation need to spread the word that with an urbanizing Iowa population, redeveloping urban core buildings is more attractive than continued sprawl.

Those interested in historic preservation have many opportunities to remain involved in this discussion.  Two organizations, the Des Moines Rehabbers Club and the Des Moines Historical Society are actively working in education and advocacy on these issues.

In UA news, several new ideas for community building projects came up after the discussion, which included conversation about the Community Orchard meeting next Tuesday, the 18th.  Urban Ambassadors meet ups are held the second Tuesday of each month, and recently the organization has taken a series of field trips to events or locations related to sustainability issues in the community.

Public disclosure:  The author of this blog post, Matt Hauge, is employed by Community Housing Initiatives, a non-profit affordable housing developer that is working with Jake Christensen's development company on a project to renovate the historic Dilley Manufacturing Building in the East Village.