Reinvesting in Valley Junction

How the design and construction of two new buildings in West Des Moines, Iowa reflect the community’s historic aesthetic, address a critical need and create opportunities for social connection.

In West Des Moines, Iowa sits a gathering place – what some have called the heart and soul of West Des Moines. This place is known as Valley Junction, and it has served as a corridor of continuous development activity for well over a century. Valley Junction got its start in 1846 when its first settler, James C. Jordan pitched a tent between two oak trees on the western side of the Des Moines border. An individualist with a strong sense of moral values, Jordan eventually built a house on the site which later became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In recent years, the 300 block of Valley Junction – characterized by a mix of quality mid-century civic buildings and antiquated single-story commercial buildings – has become a hot spot for reinvestment. Several new developer-led projects have launched there in the last three years, including First National Bank and Union 315, two RDG-led projects aimed at preserving the history and significance of Valley Junction.

Union 315 is a 3-story mixed-use building designed to complement its neighborhood while representing its own place in time. The structure encompasses ground-floor retail lease space, second-floor office space and residential units on the third floor. First National Bank, which has long been a staple of Valley Junction, partnered with RDG to design a new, modern branch office on a prominent corner across the street from the bank’s original 1900s location. Both projects have a symbiotic relationship born not only from complementary designs but also from their owners’ commitment to a permanent presence in the neighborhood – investments that were rooted in community engagement. Here, we look at the process of designing these spaces, and how the design of these buildings complements the historic aesthetic of their locality and creates economic and social connection opportunities for the community.

Designing For and With the Community

Valley Junction is a vibrant area with residents passionately interested in keeping it that way. Because of the level of interest, it was vital that the design processes for Union 315 and First National Bank incorporated intentional and consistent communication with neighbors and members of the public. The design team frequently met with the Historic Valley Junction Board of Directors, elected officials, and both building owners and actively engaged their neighbors throughout the design and construction process. Given that both buildings were designed almost entirely virtually due to the pandemic, these communications often required special effort and creativity.

First National Bank – Valley Junction branch in West Des Moines, Iowa by RDG. Photo by Jacob Sharp.

It became clear throughout our conversations that the issue of access was paramount and included access to affordable housing and access to reliable, inclusive services. Valley Junction is home to some of Des Moines’ most affordable housing, yet income levels within the area are considerably lower than in surrounding sections of the city. Union 315 helps address the need for affordable housing by incorporating 10 affordable and market-rate apartments on the upper level of the building, a feature that is highly unique within the landscape of the community. Activating the upper-level housing within Union 315 meant it was critical to design and build a new structure. RDG’s design for the building maximizes a previously underdeveloped site, leveraging both the street and the alley behind the building. As one of the largest new structures to be built in Valley Junction in years, its double-height first-floor storefront, upper-story residential housing and prominent use of glass contribute to the welcoming, pedestrian-friendly vibe of the area. Combined with easy access to walkable neighborhoods and local dining and shopping amenities, Union 315’s rental units offer an appealing option for Valley Junction residents and allow occupants to live, work and play within the same primary locale.

While Union 315 helps address the community’s affordable housing needs, First National Bank’s intentional design addresses the need for access to inclusive and reliable services. The neighborhood’s diverse population influenced the bank’s desire to prioritize in-person, face-to-face connections with customers. Though the bank offers modern amenities such as interactive video banking and drive-through, the bank was adamant that there also be welcoming and accessible lobby services available for customers. In response, RDG’s design creates a sense of openness and barrier-free access through features like floor-to-ceiling windows, well-lit internal and external spaces and an inviting entry area that also offers pedestrians a spot to stop and rest. Designers took inspiration from the mid-century modern style of surrounding buildings in this thriving commercial district, and from the bank’s commitment to maximizing pedestrian access to its services.

Designing within Historical Context

Another key to instilling public support was to design projects that were both contextual and of “our time.” Both building sites had been previously underdeveloped with structures that did not reflect the historic aesthetic of the area. It was critical, then, that we designed the new buildings to return to the original scale to match the context of the site and that we intentionally pulled in elements that would reference the historic turn of the 20th-century elements of the 5th street corridor.

There were several considerations for designing these modern buildings within a historical context. The site itself posed an interesting challenge. To match the scale of the surrounding buildings we located the buildings near sidewalks and designed the scale of the structures to match the surrounding intersection’s other three corners. The First National Bank building was brought right up to the corner of the street, a position that reinforces the commitment of, “we’re here with you for the long term”. The design for the buildings had to fall within the current zoning requirements of the area; notably, the height for both buildings had to be less than 36 feet. Likewise, the flat, tight site of both buildings challenged the design team to creatively address stormwater management without impacting ADA accessibility and to solve the problem of bringing vehicles safely through the drive-through lanes at the rear of the First National Bank building. These challenges were addressed by creatively locating building entries to accommodate accessibility requirements without sacrificing convenience.  

Union 315 in West Des Moines, Iowa by RDG. Photo by Jacob Sharp.

Holistically, the steel and concrete construction for both projects offer a sense of permanence, a feeling that these buildings are long-term investments that are here to stay. Union 315’s three attractive and visible fronts are enhanced by the openness created by the bank’s parking area between the buildings. While the bank and the mixed-use Union 315 are constructed with different materials, they complement one another with their extensive glass fronts, a mixture of light and dark colors and clean lines.

The process of designing both projects demonstrated both the value of community engagement and the importance of strategic partnerships. Thanks to committed partnerships with the community, owners and local organizations, Valley Junction has a pair of new buildings that, like many of the structures surrounding them, will withstand the next 100 years. Both projects demonstrate that preservation can work hand in glove with new development to make the old new again and offer an authentic experience for occupants and users.

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Matt Coen, AIA is a senior partner and architect focused on work within RDG’s Corporate and Multifamily Markets. With more than 15 years of experience, Matt has focused his career on community revitalization and economic development efforts including work in urban planning, infill development, historic preservation, housing and public improvement projects. 

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