By Austin Cannon | Original Article
Aug. 4, 2018

Des Moines plans to launch a $4.5 million pilot program to help neighborhoods buy nuisance properties, demolish decaying homes and make other revitalization improvements.

The catch: It would only be available in four of the city’s 52 neighborhoods.

That has some residents worried the program could further the gap between “good” neighborhoods and “bad” ones.

The Des Moines City Council is expected to vote Monday to launch the program in the Beaverdale, Drake, Oak Park/Highland Park and McKinley School/Columbus Park neighborhoods.

“We really have to look at what would be successful and repeatable,” City Manager Scott Sanders told council members during a Monday workshop. “If we can solve at least four communities … then we have the roadmap to go through the whole city.”

But Marjorie Ramsey, a Capitol Park resident and chair of the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Board, worries that low-income neighborhoods like hers will be left behind.

“I understand their concept, but as these four neighborhoods get better, the other ones are dropping,” she said.

 

‘This is the catalyst’

Des Moines’ pilot program follows a neighborhood revitalization study conducted by czbLLC, a Virginia-based urban planning consultant.

The report, released in June, found that 30 of the city’s 52 neighborhoods have failed to keep up with inflation over the past 12 years, and 22 neighborhoods had a higher percentage of “slipping or bad” homes than “good or excellent” ones.

The firm estimated it would cost $832 million to fix Des Moines’ housing weaknesses citywide.

Instead, the study recommended targeting revitalization dollars toward 27 “middle” neighborhoods “on blocks neither thriving or in distress.”

The city narrowed the list to four areas based on proximity to community assets like parks, schools and businesses.

“Well, when is it our turn?” asked Susan Wells of the Cheatom Park Neighborhood Association.

Located north of downtown, Cheatom Park faces “substantial obstacles to even basic stability on some blocks,” according to the study.

Wells said the money could be used to improve the neighborhood’s derelict properties and provide loans or grants for residents to pay for new roofs or furnaces.

If it’s successful, the pilot program would be expanded to additional neighborhoods. The initial proposal calls for $7 million to be spent in the second year and $10 million per year after that.

“To me, this is the catalyst to redeveloping the whole city,” said Connie Boesen, an at-large council member.

 

‘We have to start somewhere’

Amber Lynch, a senior planner for the city, said Des Moines won’t abandon neighborhoods not included in the pilot program.

Des Moines already spends about $3.2 million a year on neighborhood revitalization efforts, designating $1 million each for the Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Neighborhood Finance Corporation.

Another $1.2 million is dedicated to neighborhood infrastructure projects like streets, curbs and sidewalks.

Despite that, Jeff Witte of the Fairmont Park Neighborhood Association on the east side said he doesn’t understand why the city would spend additional money in Beaverdale when neighborhoods like his face crumbling infrastructure.

“It’s important for us to keep Beaverdale strong and attractive,” Lynch said. “And there are parts of Beaverdale where you’re starting to see some neglect creep in, and so we want to get rid of that neglect before it takes hold.”

Councilwoman Linda Westergaard, who represents the city’s northeast side, voiced concerns about restricting the program to four neighborhoods during Monday’s workshop, but later in the week said she had come around to the idea.

“We have to start somewhere,” she said. “It makes sense to start with these neighborhoods.”

 

How will the city pay for it?

Des Moines wants to fund the program with revenue from a 1-cent local option sales tax. City officials are eyeing March to bring a referendum back before voters.

The 1-cent per dollar increase would generate about $37 million a year in Des Moines.

A similar attempt to increase the sales tax failed this year. A majority of voters in Des Moines, West Des Moines and Windsor Heights backed increasing the rate from 6 cents to 7 cents, but the effort failed in other suburban cities.

The state legislature has since changed the law requiring cities with contiguous borders to vote as a block.

If the sales tax vote fails again, Des Moines would use property tax dollars to fund the pilot project. City officials have said they will raise the property tax levy 20 to 25 cents next year if the sales tax is not increased.

A date has not been set for a sales tax referendum.