- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - When Steve King, deputy state historic preservation officer, looks at the Des Moines Riverfront YMCA, he sees a downtown landmark and an example of midcentury architecture, an era that emphasized functionality and clean building lines.

“From my perspective, the Riverfront Y is a great example of the architecture of its time,” said King (not to be confused with Iowa’s congressman of the same name). “I would love to see it maintained.”

But when city leaders and developers look at the YMCA, they see prime real estate, a plot begging to be redeveloped into a glassy high-rise when the Y moves to a new downtown location next year.

The Des Moines Register reports (http://dmreg.co/1haFl5C ) that among those conflicting views, it appears those who favor demolishing the 57-year-old YMCA to clear the way for redevelopment will get their wish.

Two unnamed potential buyers are preparing proposals to demolish the YMCA and build a mixed-use development with retail space and housing, said Linda Gibbs, one of the listing agents for the property and a senior vice president with CBRE/Hubbell Commercial. One is a national development group; the other is a private investor from outside the state, she said.

A third developer has also expressed interest, and a fourth, a local development team, had inquired about refurbishing the YMCA but pulled out when it became clear city leaders wanted to see the land redeveloped, Gibbs said.

The 1.8-acre site at 101 Locust St. is the only downtown plot along the Des Moines River open for redevelopment.

“It has tremendous value from that standpoint,” Gibbs said.

The YMCA of Greater Des Moines is asking $5.5 million for the property. Y officials hope to have a buyer by the fall.

The Y is scheduled to move into its new branch in the former Polk County convention complex at 501 Grand Ave. in January.

Both development teams are expected to take their proposals to city leaders for feedback within 30 to 45 days, Gibbs said.

The YMCA board ultimately will decide to whom to sell the property. Input from city leaders, though, figures to be important, as plans to redevelop the site will require approval from city boards. The property, for instance, would need to be rezoned if the developers want to exceed the 75-foot building restriction.

Assistant City Manager Matt Anderson said he doesn’t think refurbishing the Riverfront Y is feasible.

The eight-story residential tower lacks sprinklers and air conditioning and was built as a dormitory, with small rooms and shared bathrooms.

The athletic facilities - a maze of hallways, gyms and exercise rooms - are too boxy to be converted into retail or office space, he said.

“I don’t think the numbers work out to rehab it,” Anderson said. “The developers I talk to think the value is in the land, not the building.”

For the site, Anderson envisions a glassy tower, possibly 10 or 15 stories tall, with high-end housing. On the lower floors, there could be a restaurant overlooking the river, a coffee shop along Locust Street and maybe a small surface parking lot.

It could be the spot to jump-start the downtown’s condo market, Anderson said.

“If you’re going to try to sell condos in the Des Moines market, you have to offer something special, and this is one site where you can offer something special: views of (the) river, views of the Capitol, views of the skyline.”

It would be critical for the developers to design the tower so as not to overshadow the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates to the south or dominate views of the Capitol and the riverwalk, Anderson said. The solution, he said, is to build the tower on the north side of the property along Grand Avenue with the broad sides of the tower facing north and south so it will obstruct less of the east-west views.

Vernon Delpesce, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines, said he doesn’t have a stance on whether the YMCA should be preserved or redeveloped; it’s up to the buyers. He said the Y will photograph and record the history of the building, including elements like the brick mosaics that adorn that building.

The Riverfront Y is not on the National Register of Historic Places. King said he has seen little public effort to save the building.

If the building is demolished, King said he would like to see the new development respect the architecture of the buildings along the riverfront, like City Hall and the World Food Prize building.

“It’s hard to imagine a tall, glassy tower will be a good neighbor to the recently restored World Food Prize building,” he said. “It’s a matter of scale.”

Steve Wilke-Shapiro, co-organizer of the Des Moines Rehabbers Club, also thinks the building should be preserved.

He pointed to the brick mosaics designed by former Drake University professor Stan Hess and the architecture that serves as an example of the midcentury style.

“It’s often very difficult to justify in economic terms the expense of restoring historic buildings,” he said. “But we have to look a little deeper and recognize the individual narrative each building has and its place in the history of the city.”

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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