Revive our streets’ ‘dead zones’

Josh Garrett | Co-owner, and Jett and Monkey’s Dog Shoppe

The Idea: Wider, open sidewalks. Pop-up businesses. Activated street-level spaces. Better signage. No more dead street life.

Over the past two decades, downtown Des Moines has evolved into a thriving urban oasis in the middle of Iowa. With over $3 billion invested downtown in the past 10 years, we have hundreds of reasons to live, work and visit downtown Des Moines.

When walking between marquee attractions such as Court Avenue, East Village and Gateway West, one will quickly find most blocks devoid of street life. These “dead zones” are caused by a combination of empty commercial space, large open parking lots, construction sidewalk closures and fast-moving traffic. Unpleasing aesthetics, lack of retail or social activities and safety concerns cause visitors to quickly exit these areas.

With several major hotels and thousands of new downtown residents in these areas, we must do better. We are all pedestrians every day and deserve safe and accessible sidewalks. Demand for walkable neighborhoods continues to increase. Improving our streets’ dead zones will make walking much more desirable and have an economic benefit to business.

Here are five ideas to revive the dead zones and dramatically improve the downtown experience for visitors, businesses, workers and residents:

Activate street-level spaces.

We should identify and prioritize high-impact streets so that future developments requesting city incentives in high-priority zones include ground-floor retail, restaurant and/or cultural space. Inactive spaces, such as offices, hotel rooms and parking should be placed on upper floors or set back from the sidewalk.

Invest in sidewalks.

More public right of way needs to be redistributed to those on foot. Many of our downtown sidewalks are narrow. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, commercial pedestrian through zones should be 8-12 feet wide. Several sidewalks along Grand Avenue, Locust Street and Sixth Avenue have through zones less than 4 feet. Wider sidewalks allow for safe and accessible space for all pedestrians. Street furniture, including benches, lighting, meters, bike parking and trash cans, needs to be between the through zone and the curb.

Limit sidewalk closures.

Closing sidewalks should be the last resort. With several projects under construction at once, pedestrians are forced to cross the same street several times within a few blocks. Sidewalk closures lead to lost sales for businesses due to interrupted traffic patterns and confusion. In most cases, pedestrians can be rerouted on the same side of the street safely around construction and traffic with barricades and lighting.

Allow pop-up businesses.

Create small incubator spaces at the edge of parking lots along sidewalks. Converted shipping containers and food trucks are used in many cities as affordable and attractive “pop-up” structures. Along with adjacent seating areas, placing these structures along the sidewalk hides parked vehicles and activates street life. Successful micro-businesses and cultural organizations could absorb nearby vacant commercial space when they outgrow the incubator space.

Sidewalk building signage.

In areas where skywalks are present, retailers and restaurants should be encouraged to locate on the ground floor. Signage for businesses that engage pedestrians needs to be present at skywalk and sidewalk entrances. This allows maximum exposure for the business and contributes to street-level activity. The best example of this currently is Davis Brown Tower at 215 10th St. With proper signage, skywalkers and those on the street know what businesses are on the ground floor. >