Two-way streets & high-quality schools

Jake Christensen | President, Christensen Development

The Idea: The combination of two basic infrastructure components – high-quality schools and two-way streets – will lift Des Moines to the next level of success.

The city is on a roll and has added exciting amenities, housing and art. The next thing that needs to be added is not exciting, but will transform downtown Des Moines into a great American city.

By going back to the basics of what creates a strong neighborhood, we can have an even more vibrant city. We need to focus on the livability of downtown to attract all segments of the population. Two key attributes of a great city are missing from downtown: two-way streets and thoughtfully planned developments that create an opportunity for high-quality schools to be integrated.

The current framework is fragmented by wide one-way streets that cause the roads to act like giant canyons of cars moving too fast for pedestrians to safely access the city. The impact of implementing two-way streets in place of the one-way streets would be profound.

Imagine if the entire downtown functioned and felt like two blocks of East Locust between East Fourth Street and East Sixth Street. We currently have one-way streets on the west side of downtown that frequently have cars traveling in excess of 50 mph in 25 mph zones across multiple lanes.

This causes a constant game of Frogger that causes pedestrians to avoid those areas of the city. This condition causes retail to avoid these areas or to fail because the streets do not have the number of pedestrians that a downtown workforce of 80,000 people should exhibit.

The clearest example is to compare the lack of retail along Grand and Locust to the west side of the Des Moines River and the success of the same streets in the East Village.

You can also see the example of this phenomenon on Court Avenue. When I moved to Des Moines in 1996, the city was working to create the Court Avenue Entertainment District. Court Avenue was a one-way street at the time. There were plans and more plans for making this happen, but the district was primarily a mix of below-average bars and vacant lots.

The street was changed to two-way circulation several years ago, and now look at Court Avenue. The majority of the storefronts are retail, there are numerous options for the new residents of the area, and it is home to the first full-service grocery store downtown. It has become the entertainment district.

One-way streets can also improve residential development. Downtown has hundreds of acres of land that will develop into residential. Imagine how different downtown would feel and function if all of our streets were more like the streets in Sherman Hill and less like Interstate 235.

The solution to this problem takes two things: time and money. The money will need to be invested in streetlights, signs and road markings. The time will be needed to allow for the investment to be made over time and for development to respond to the changes to the infrastructure.

The return on this investment will be measurable to property owners, businesses and the city of Des Moines. The land values, sales tax receipts and density of both the East Village and Court Avenue have increased dramatically as a result of the success. And the extra benefit of two-way streets is safety, through a reduction in both the quantity and severity of accidents.

In addition to two-way streets, downtown development has moved forward without enough input and planning from the schools. This has resulted in a lack of growth plans similar to what the suburban schools have.

The Des Moines City Council set a goal for an additional 10,000 residents in the early 2000s. This goal has been attained, but unlike development in our suburban communities, school planning is more difficult to predict.

The same ratios do not apply to urban dwellings to derive a per-dwelling student estimate. This challenge actually requires even more coordination between the Des Moines Public Schools and the development process.

The city and the schools do not currently proactively communicate and coordinate. The quality of education downtown is on par with any suburban school, and we are lucky to have the education assets of the Downtown School, the Walnut School, and last but not least, Central Campus.

The solution to this is simple: The development process should include information being provided to Des Moines Public Schools in a way that trends can be measured to facilitate the planning of our next school expansions downtown. >