By Mellow DeTray

The highly anticipated Des Moines City Council Study Session held on Thursday night, Jan. 26, 2023 was well-attended by members of the community, anxious to hear about Marina redevelopment plans, and give voice to their questions and feedback.

During the week prior to the meeting, the Council received hundreds of calls and emails regarding the project. The bulk of the feedback is strongly against the development of a hotel at the Des Moines Marina, but Mayor Matt Mahoney asked everyone to listen to the presentation with an open mind, and reiterated that no decision or development deal has yet been made. Misinformation has been circulating throughout the community, creating strong objections to ideas before people know what is truly being discussed.

Marina Development Over Time

City Manager Michael Matthias gave a presentation on the history of the Marina, sharing a poster created in the mid 1980s showing planned improvements to the area that the City is still trying to implement some 40 years later. The original plans included better walking access to the waterfront from downtown, and a pedestrian only retail space in a downtown alleyway. It included a greenbelt promenade along the waterfront, from the North Bulkhead to Anthony’s restaurant.

In 2008, the UW School of Architecture prepared a Marina District Enhancement Plan for Des Moines. The Plan included different options for the waterfront, including space for a hotel, retail, offices, as well as marina industrial use. Council directed that they did not want to include residential development in the plan.

The recent redevelopment decisions have included three large community open houses. The process has been slowed by Covid, and a decision was made to wait out starting any projects for a time. In March 2022 the City did enter into a development agreement and even paid a $35,000 “good faith” fee, but the developer, who wanted to expand development beyond the scope of the plan, terminated the contract and refunded the fee. Since then, the City has found that it is more economically viable to publicly fund Marina redevelopment. 

The Public Development Plan

Skylabs Architects presented the possible development plan they’ve come up with. The urban design goals of Marina redevelopment include downtown connectivity and walkability, accessibility, public gathering space, and civic programs (including SR3). Landscape goals include taking an ecological approach to design, creating native plant ecosystems, treating the stormwater that currently flows untreated from downtown directly into the Sound, and protecting the embankment from erosion. The architectural goals of the plan include adding value to the steps area, services like food & beverages, public & private investment, quality buildings that enhance the landscape, and iconic architecture that add identity to the space.

Steps leading from Downtown to the Marina are at the heart of the plan, with an adjacent meandering path at a gentle slope, providing access for all as well as interesting educational features along the way. Currently under the slope where the stairs are planned is a 24-inch pipe for stormwater drainage from a 60-acre area of downtown. This untreated runoff has created uncontrolled algae blooms in the past. Terraced treatment of this stormwater could be made into an educational display. There could also be some kind of fountain at the bottom of the stairs, creating a destination as well as a gathering spot. The fountain could be designed as an amphitheater as well, with options to turn the water off for dry seating. The slope would be planted with native species, restoring habitat to wildlife. Driftwood would be used along the way, to support design elements as well as use native materials.

Originally, the steps and landscaping idea would have been funded by private development, but now the City has more leverage financially and can take this on without selling any land to developers. Costs have not been ascertained yet, but determining those is the next step, with a Council vote scheduled for next week.

Private Development

In recent years, the City found that leasing sections of the Marina wasn’t able to attract quality developers, so in order for privately funded development to proceed they would need to actually sell the site. There are multiple sites proposed for new buildings, which could contain a parking garage, commercial and retail space, boat storage, and a hotel or restaurant. One site is next to the proposed steps and another is on the North Bulkhead which is currently a parking lot. In either location, the public waterfront promenade would be preserved, and public use would be maintained throughout the district. This private development decision can be made in the future and is separate from the stairs plan. 

  • Councilmember JC Harris objects to the whole thing. He says next week is too soon to expect them to have a decision on this idea, and doesn’t believe the hotel or the stairs would be a magnet to bring people to Des Moines.
  • Councilmember Vic Pennington said he has watched the Marina evolve from a sandbar to a working marina, to a thriving commercial space. It will continue to evolve, he says, and thus it is important to discuss what it should look like. He feels that this is an opportunity to enhance the area without destroying what people love about it.
  • Councilmember Harry Steinmetz reminded people that views aren’t protected, and at any point a neighbor of his could build a taller house and block his view. He feels the City should try to preserve water views as well as public access to the area, but that they are also responsible for creating conditions that will help the local economy. This is an exciting time, he said; change is coming, but the Council will definitely take into account community feedback.
  • Councilmember Gene Achziger said there were too many unknowns, including costs and public or private developments, for them to make a decision. He said the Marina is truly unique, and that there should be a public planning commission for better public input into this decision. This development, he believes, is not the solution.
  • Councilmember Jeremy Nutting was happy with the huge amount of feedback Council has received on this issue, including attendance and comments at the meeting as well as emails and calls. He is happy with the public development ideas, and wants to set the table for future development, but he also stated that anyone looking into building on the bulkhead would be prohibited by the costs, so it was unlikely a hotel would go in the spot everyone is worried about. Nutting said he works in construction and people are free to contact him to answer any questions on this.
  • Councilmember Traci Buxton said she has been taking in public comments every day, whether in person or on social media. She is willing to meet with anyone one-on-one to discuss these ideas. She said feedback from younger people has been much more positive on this development plan. She is excited about choosing the best options for creating a more dynamic destination city. After all the feedback, she said the hotel is off the table for her, but that a parking lot is not the best use of waterfront property, and that the City will eventually want to make better use of the space.
  • Mayor Mahoney described the change he’s seen over time in the downtown area, and reminded people that density is coming to Des Moines. Growth is inevitable in this location surrounded by larger cities, and bringing in things like the Business Park, the new Theatre, and the potential Hotel with a waterfront view are economic generators, increasing tourism. He says he is thinking 50 or 100 years ahead.
  • City Manager Matthias said the Marina steps project will put Des Moines on the map, and be a net benefit to everyone. He also said that according to one study, the value of hotel occupants to a local economy was significant. 

The motion recommended by Matthias is that staff be allowed to conduct feasibility studies for the public works projects for landslide redevelopment and capital improvement. Council will vote on this motion on Feb. 2.


Below is full video of the council Study Session:

YouTube player