- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The massive fire that gutted a historic downtown Des Moines building over the weekend shouldn’t derail redevelopment in the area, local leaders said.

Investigators haven’t determined the cause of Saturday’s blaze at the former Younkers department store, partly because the weak structure made it dangerous to examine. A team of federal experts is expected to take over the probe Monday.

Mayor Frank Cownie told the Des Moines Register (https://dmreg.co/1hpuJQc ) the fire is a setback but said the city is committed to redevelopment.

“We’re not going to sit down and let that building sit for another 10 years,” he said.

The former Younkers store has been vacant since 2005, when the store moved out. The Alexander Co. of Madison, Wis., began a $36 million project in September to convert the building, which dates to 1899, into apartments.

Officials say that the former Younkers building will have to be demolished and that several nearby buildings sustained smoke and water damage.

Losing the historic building also opens up a key site downtown. Larry Zimpleman, CEO, chairman and president of Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group, said he’s confident something will be built there.

“Now the city will have the opportunity working with the current developer to think about a wider range of projects,” Zimpleman said.

City workers were cleaning up ash from the fire, but Sunday’s strong winds made that work difficult.

Parts of Walnut and Locust streets will be closed indefinitely for several blocks around the fire site for the investigation and initial cleanup. That will require detours for city buses and some commuters.

Most of the neighboring businesses should be able to use their buildings this week, but some will have to relocate temporarily.

On Sunday, structural experts evaluated the former Younkers store to ensure it will be safe for a team from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Des Moines Fire Department spokesman Brian O’Keefe said the ATF team will spend at least a week examining the site.

The ATF team of about two dozen chemists, forensic specialists and structural engineers is being brought in because of their expertise and because of the size of the fire.

O’Keefe said there no evidence of a crime at this point, but with construction work going on at the building there are a number of possible causes.

The fire was initially reported early Saturday morning. A new sprinkler system was being installed in the building as part of the renovations, but it wasn’t operational yet.


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

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