Founded in 1843, Des Moines, Iowa, was developed during the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, the prairie town is returning to those roots with a rash of thoughtful construction. Many of the projects, particularly those downtown, have been spurred by the insurance industry, which dominates the local economy.

Architect Sherwood Adams, a LEED-certified partner at Brooks Borg Skiles Architecture Engineering, explains: “In a typically Midwestern neighborly fashion, insurance powerhouses teamed with city and county governments to provide the motivation for most of the ongoing and projected downtown development.”

The Downtown Planning Project, an initiative of the city and Polk County, hired Agrest & Gandelsonas Architects of New York to create a new urban plan. “Our steering committee held its first public input meeting in late January, to overwhelming response,” says board member Sarah Oltrogge. “Those who have invested their time in downtown are passionate enough to want to be part of its renaissance.”

Job/Population Growth

The population for the metro area in 2006 was 527,116 and is expected to reach 563,767 by 2011. More than 65,000 workers are employed downtown. The largest employers are expected to add more than 5,300 jobs in 2007, according to the Greater Des Moines Partnership, an economic and community development organization. One-third of the workforce is part of the “creative class,” which includes designers, doctors, lawyers, and those working in the arts, media, and finance.

Office Market

According to a 2007 real estate survey by broker CB Richard Ellis/Hubbell Commercial, downtown rents for Class A space range from $17 to $24 per square foot, full-service gross. The average occupancy for top-tier buildings was 98 percent.

The state Capitol's central dome, covered in 23-carat gold, has been regilded twice since the building's 1886 completion.
Craig Aurness/CORBIS The state Capitol's central dome, covered in 23-carat gold, has been regilded twice since the building's 1886 completion.

Residential Market

The value of home construction slid 22 percent last year, to $667 million. Housing starts were down 24 percent.

Market Strengths

  • Central location
  • Affordable costs of living and doing business
  • Strong financial services industry

Market Concerns

  • Low population growth
  • Declining housing starts
  • High state commercial property tax

Developable Land

There are approximately 35,000 developable acres in the metro area, according to David Maahs, executive vice president, economic development, of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. About 10,000 are currently under development.

Development Incentives

The city and county offer tax abatement and tax increment financing. Boosters advocate raising historic property rehabilitation tax credits to $20 million per year in an attempt to spur the adaptive reuse of existing historic assets. “The central urban core includes Chicago-style mid-rise buildings, Gothic Revival, Beaux Arts traditions, Art Deco, and modern classics,” says Richard Seely, an associate at OPN Architects. “Neighborhoods and historic districts feature styles from Victorian to the Midwest version of the Craftsman or California bungalow.”


“I think we're on the right path,” says the Downtown Planning Project's Oltrogge, who is also the president of Historic East Village, a downtown neighborhood. “I would like to see an increased emphasis on the use of the Des Moines River as a source of recreation. This is one of the issues coming out of the Downtown Planning Project, the goal being to remove the barriers that inhibit river recreation and, instead, embrace it as an important catalyst to downtown Des Moines' future success.”

Key Architects

Brooks Borg Skiles Architecture Engineering
Major project: The $53 million EMC Building, completed in 1997, which received the largest energy rebate ever offered by Iowa utility MidAmerican Energy Co.
Founded in 1895, the firm has 28 employees and reported $2.3 million in billings for 2006.

OPN Architects
Major project: The $2 million, 14,000-square-foot Des Moines Public Library East Side branch, which opens this month
The 54-employee firm was founded in 1974 and reported 2006 billings of $10.8 million.

RDG Planning & Design
Major project: The ongoing $71 million restoration of the state Capitol (1871–1886), which the firm began in 1995
The eight-office firm, which reported $24 million in 2006 billings, has 190 employees.

Notable Projects

The $36 million Drake University student housing project, to be completed in August 2008, includes 216,000 square feet of residential space and 9,200 square feet of retail space. Designed by FEH Associates; developed by Hubbell Realty Co.

East Village Square, a $15.6 million mid-rise that opened last November, holds 51 affordable and 64 market-rate units, including 21 lofts. Designed by W.A. Architecture; developed by Hatch Development.

Still in progress, the $30 million Ingersoll Square development will house 138 condos, 60 apartments, and 30,000 square feet of retail. Designed by architecture firm Worthington Works; developed by High Land Co.

Key Developers & Builders

Hubbell Realty Co.
Major project: The $13 million, 43-unit Brownstones on Grand, opening in May, sits a block from the Des Moines River; designed by Brooks Borg Skiles
The company's Hub Tower (right), designed by Brooks Borg Skiles and built in 1978, includes 100,000 square feet of Class A office space.

Ladco Development
Major project: The $41 million, 26,000-square foot Davis-Brown Tower, still in progress; designed by RDG
Ladco is a partner in Edge BCC, a facility created to provide Iowa businesses with a way to protect data and maintain business operations during a natural disaster or other unplanned interruption.

Nelson Construction
Major project: The recently completed $25 million conversion of 418 Liberty, a 12-story building that includes 39 residential units, a health club, a cafe, and 60,000 square feet of office space
In 2005, the company redeveloped a 1920s-era auto showroom into 1300 Walnut, a 22,800-square-foot contemporary office building.