Design Residency Explores Urban Redevelopment and Transformation of a Living Community

Eleven graduate students from nine universities across seven states and two countries came together Nov. 5-8, 2019 for RDG’s ninth annual Design Residency.

Residents were charged with solving a challenging design problem: reimagine and reinvigorate the eastern end of Des Moines’ Douglas Avenue Corridor, a section of the city with a highly diverse yet low-income population, deteriorating infrastructure, lack of walkability and accessibility and numerous struggling businesses. In addition to its economic and structural challenges, the area is also experiencing side effects of climate change – most of the area has recently been remapped to reflect an annual flood risk five times greater than previously defined.

During their 3 ½ days engaged in the Design Residency, the residents collaborated with each other and with RDG professionals to process and analyze large amounts of complex information and develop a vision and plan to address the Corridor’s challenges. The residency culminated with student-led presentations, in which each group offered diverse perspectives and design solutions for the reimagined Douglas Avenue Corridor.

Visiting the Site:

Visits to the Corridor allowed the residents to explore and photograph the area’s features and to get a feel for its places and people – they ate at a neighborhood restaurant and drove and walked the area. “We wanted to explore the intersection of Douglas Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, but when we arrived, we weren’t able to cross Douglas due to a non-functioning crosswalk,” said Greg Jameson, RDG’s 2019 Design Residency Chair. “Because it was the only way to safely cross the street, we had to resort to viewing the rest of the area by car. The experience really instilled in everyone how difficult it is to maneuver through the area on foot.”

Learning from Experts:

To introduce them to the Corridor and which aspects to consider in their design solutions, the residents heard from a diverse panel of local, regional and national community leaders. The panel, which consisted of 17 academics and professionals with over 400 combined years of knowledge and experience, spoke to the students about five areas of consideration:

  1. Sustainability. Residents heard about connecting people to water, designing and building resiliently, the role of public lands as a steward for the ecosystem and the sustainable building code. Knowing that cities, in general, are built too close to the flood plain and with lots of overbuilt parking lots, how can our design approach change to better our community?
  2. Social Capital. Residents heard from speakers about social capital as foundational to building a strong community and fostering healthy families, businesses and economies. The panel discussed the study area’s diversity of ethnicity and income, the proportion of residents who have only been in the U.S. a short time and the risks gentrification poses to current residents. Social capital assumes that every resident – those of today and tomorrow – matters, and that every community member needs to be involved in creating, fostering and nurturing the community. Operating under a model of social capital, how can our design support the existing community?
  3. Land Use and Development. Speakers shared details about how projects get built in this community and region. RDG’s Marty Shukert discussed new urbanist principals of development and smart planning practices. Several local developers shared their perspectives, including how to make affordable housing work and the need for a mix of public, workforce and market-rate housing. Residents were challenged to consider how to design development that integrates smart planning practices to create a better place and community.
  4. The Built Environment. Residents heard about which aspects to consider when proposing new developments. Panelists discussed the challenges of infrastructure and fiscal constraints, designing with the climate in mind, the benefit of trees on an environment and the use of computer modeling to understand designs. The question became, how do we assess our designs to make sure principles are sound, the city’s needs are met and end-users are satisfied?
  5. The Diverse Community. Speakers from Des Moines’ Urban Dreams organization led a focused discussion on understanding the realities of the community and its residents.

Creating a Vision:
Each of the 11 residents was asked to respond to four questions:

  1. What is the corridor like today?
  2. What do you bring to the corridor?
  3. What do you see the corridor becoming?
  4. What inspires you?

These questions kicked off a consensus-building process and started the residents on a path toward addressing the design challenge. They worked intensely in small and large groups, and focused on four distinct areas of the Corridor:

  1. The former site of Plaza Lanes, a community-gathering spot that burned down two years ago;
  2. The Douglas Avenue/Martin Luther King Parkway intersection and transportation corridor;
  3. The southeast quadrant, which includes the riverbank area; and
  4. The Euclid Avenue Bridge leading into the Corridor.

On Friday, November 8, the 11 residents publicly presented “Life on the Edge: Beyond Urban Redevelopment,” their re-imagining of these Corridor sites. After an introductory video, each resident provided insight around what they learned about the site and their subsequent design. Residents shared about the community and its diversity, the role of public health and the context of the site and then shared elements of the plan they had devised in their short time together.

The residents’ plan includes a new mixed-use development on the former Plaza Lanes site, a major public art installation, a return to nature in the southeast quadrant and a replacement of the Euclid Avenue Bridge. The plan also includes increased green infrastructure to enhance flood resilience and reduce runoff and pretreat existing runoff as well as traffic flow and accessibility enhancements to create a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly area. A variety of public spaces – event and market areas, a park, community gardens, trail access, and a food forest – provide opportunities for community members to engage with one another and their locale, while a signature, high-design bridge becomes a regional destination.

“The RDG Design Residency program provided an excellent opportunity to collaborate with a diversified and multifaceted group of students from across the country,” said Lane Pralle, a Master of Architecture student at Iowa State University. “As a Des Moines resident, I enjoyed hearing from the varied panelists and connecting with fellow individuals from the greater Des Moines area. RDG’s talented staff were an excellent resource and generously lent their expertise so we could formalize a vision and create a meaningful project.”

The 2019 RDG Design Residents and their areas of study included:

Lane Pralle, Architecture, Iowa State University

Morgan Tweed, Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Iowa State University

Marzieh Akhgari, Architecture, Iowa State University

Morgan Dunay, Landscape Architecture and Community and Urban Planning

Alondra Garza, Master of Fine Arts, Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Danielle Drinkuth, Urban Planning & Public Policy, University of Illinois-Chicago

Robyn Williams, Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Iowa

Sam Jones, Urban Planning, University of Toronto

Mitch Buthod, Water Resources and Urban and Regional Planning, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Arielle King, Environmental Law and Policy, Vermont Law

Emily Rodriguez Weno, Master of Business Administration and Public Health, Washington University-St. Louis

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