- Associated Press - Sunday, December 27, 2020

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - While shopping and entertainment districts across Iowa are just trying to survive the pandemic business slowdown, Des Moines’ Drake neighborhood is in the middle of a transformation.

Millions of dollars have been spent in the University Avenue district - and millions more are expected over the next few years, bringing hundreds of new apartment dwellers and visitors to the area.

Business owners are ready to welcome an onslaught of foot traffic, including from a new hotel that opened last month, and are working on a branding campaign to create an identity for the business district near Drake University. Its boundaries stretch from Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway to 31st Street along University Avenue, stretching into the nearby neighborhoods roughly bounded by Carpenter Avenue to the north and Cottage Grove Avenue to the south.

The hope is the area will become the next East Village or Valley Junction, said Darrell Sarmento, executive director of the Des Moines West Side Chamber of Commerce, as it positions itself to emerge from the pandemic.

“I don’t know how much it’s ever going to be a real retail shop area, but dining and entertainment is the goal,” he told the Des Moines Register. “It’s a place you want to hang out.”

Last month, the 124-room Home2 Suites Des Moines by Hilton at Drake University opened at 2650 University Ave., bringing with it two local restaurants on the ground floor. Two blocks west, staff have moved into the striking new Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement building at 2800 University Ave., though it remains closed to the public during the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this year, a streetscape project wrapped up, making the area more pedestrian-friendly by adding bike lanes, new sidewalks and bus stops on University Avenue and reducing driving lanes. In addition, several new restaurants, as well as a completely rebuilt Kum & Go, opened along the corridor.

“We’ve made a lot of great progress and, as you know, we’ve got more to come,” said Marty Martin, president of Drake University.

Framing has gone up for a 135-unit apartment building with ground-floor commercial space next to the hotel. Plans are in the works for a 260-unit development that includes retail and restaurants extending between 24th and 25th streets from University to Forest avenues. The iconic but currently empty Varsity Theatre will be transformed into a modern cinema and film center, and the university is contemplating plans for the empty parking lot east of the Walgreen’s at University and 31st Street.

Beyond the business district’s boundaries, rezoning has been approved for a shared Drake University and Des Moines Public Schools stadium on Forest Avenue, and Casey’s is considering its first nonfuel convenience store nearby.

The flurry of activity has created an entirely new look in the area, bringing a more urban vibe that raises building heights and adds density to the corridor.

“That is intentional,” Martin said. “We have been an urban university but not with a whole lot of urban amenities. And this just brings that many more amenities close to hand.”

The effort to transform the area started in October 2016, when Drake University announced it would sell 2.7 university-owned acres across from its historic Old Main building to a private developer. The university invited 11 developers to pitch a project there, with the only requirement being a high-density project.

Des Moines-based Nelson Development was selected, and it purchased the land between 25th and 26th streets for the extended-stay hotel and the apartment building.

The Home2 Suites opened Nov. 13. It’s an all-suite hotel, meaning every room has a full kitchenette and extra seating. The hotel also has a fitness room, saline pool, laundry, meeting rooms and two outdoor seating areas with fire pits and grills.

Alexander Grgurich, director of development and chief operating officer for Nelson Development, said the company envisions the hotel attracting visiting professors, doctors and nurses on extended assignments at nearby hospitals and families of Drake University students.

Its location - with restaurants and entertainment within walking distance and downtown Des Moines just a short drive away - is ideal, he said.

The team worked with Hilton to bring its Home2 Suites brand to the area and received a design variance so that the hotel could have ground-floor storefronts along University Avenue, he said.

A sit-down restaurant with a patio is planned for the eastern storefront, and Nelson is negotiating with a tenant for the west corner, Grgurich said. The middle bay is occupied by Fernando’s Mexican Grill and Hummus Mediterranean Grill.

Khaled Abdalla, who owns the fast-casual eateries, said he is working to bring “fine-dining-quality food at reasonable prices.” Both restaurants are in the same space, operating almost like a food court. Customers order burritos and tacos on one side and chicken shawarma and falafel on the other.

The shared space will give Abdalla room to bake homemade pita bread for his other Hummus locations in Jordan Creek Mall and downtown in the Local Bites food court, which is temporarily closed during the pandemic.

Abdalla moved Fernando’s a few blocks west from its previous location at 2316 University Ave., where Salah Salah plans to open a fast-casual Ethiopian restaurant called Gursha Ethiopian Grill.

Salah also owns Hilal Groceries at 1163 25th St. with his father, Abbirizak Salah, who will celebrate 20 years in business there next year.

The younger Salah said he’s seen a huge growth in sales over the past three years as the area draws more attention. The grocery’s original clientele mostly was Middle Eastern and African families, but now he’s seeing customers from all cultures shopping at the store for specialty African, Arabian, Turkish, Pakistani and Indian groceries.

Salah said he’s eager to see even more foot traffic as new developments come online, which is why he’s venturing into the restaurant business during a pandemic.

“People say I’m crazy to open in a pandemic,” he said. ”… I’m looking for the future. In the future, you’re not going to find any empty spaces around here.”

Steve Vilmain, owner of the neighborhood mainstay Drake Diner, agrees. He also sees an added benefit to more density: safety. With a history that includes a 1992 armed robbery that left two diner employees dead, the Drake area historically has been perceived as less safe than others. Vilmain hopes that perception turns around as more people visit the area.

Neighbors, too, are working to improve properties that may have suffered over the years. Seventy-nine homeowners have invested nearly $350,000 on exterior improvements to their homes with the help of InvestDSM, a new nonprofit designed to make investments in four target neighborhoods, including Drake.

InvestDSM also is working with 14 families whose homes are undergoing larger repair projects. So far, four will receive $61,000 from the nonprofit.

Vilmain also sees a renewed effort by the businesses in the district to cater to all Des Moines residents instead of just Drake University students, who often have little money to spare and leave the area for holidays and summer breaks. That, he says, will help keep businesses viable and the area thriving.

It’s why he’s appreciative of the efforts by the Des Moines West Side Chamber of Commerce to rename the area “Dogtown” instead of Drake - it’s a nod to the university, whose mascot is a bulldog, but doesn’t put all its focus there. Instead, it creates a destination that’s attractive to the broader community, he said.

The moniker has been around for decades. Dogtown was listed on fire insurance maps from 1892, according to research by the university. Use of the name has ebbed and flowed across generations, appearing occasionally in Des Moines Register articles and advertisements.

But the chamber hopes a more concerted marketing effort will make the name stick, the West Side Chamber’s Sarmento said. The name Dogtown would create a separate identity from the university “so it’s not just an extension of the campus, but its own business district,” he said.

InvestDSM also has hired an artist-in-residence, Eleanor Kahn, who is tasked with helping to “create a sense of identify for Dogtown” through public art, set to be installed in summer 2021.

Whatever the district ends up being called, the chamber is encouraged by the progress, which is helping to create confidence that business owners’ investments in the area will pay off, Sarmento said.

“This is good momentum,” he said.

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