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New Federal Courthouse Breaks Ground In Des Moines

Construction is underway on a new federal courthouse in downtown Des Moines. Funding for the project was approved by Congress in 2016, and the groundbreaking held Wednesday morning follows years of disagreement on where it should be built.

The six-story, $137 million courthouse will go up on the Des Moines riverfront, on the former site of the downtown YMCA. A host of local groups and officials had opposed that location, saying it should be reserved for a private project that would better fit with commercial riverside development.

But the courthouse location and design were endorsed by Principal Financial CEO Daniel Houston, who said a glass entry on the main floor keeps the building open to the surrounding area.

“Frankly, it’s incredibly inviting,” Houston said at the groundbreaking. “So we’re very excited about what the (General Services Administration) and the judges created in terms of a front door.”

An artist's rendering of the riverfront view of the new federal courthouse.
Credit General Services Administration
An artist's rendering of the riverfront view of the new federal courthouse.

The General Services Administration said the move will save money by bringing all courtrooms into one building instead of renting space in the annex next door to the current location. Only the U.S. Attorney’s office will continue to rent space.

In addition, the new courthouse will be more secure and will allow better access to courtrooms and offices for people with disabilities.

“Modern courtrooms are required for modern trials,” said Chief Judge for the Southern District, John Jarvey.

Jarvey said several other sites were considered. Some of the them were too expensive. Others would have taken too long to prepare for construction. In the end, he said, the YMCA site is appropriate because the courthouse deserves a prominent place in the community.

“It’s the combination of its location out of the flood plain, it’s environmentally clean, it’s on bus lines where people come to the federal court on buses,” Jarvey said. “All these factors played into the decision and it wasn’t an easy decision but it’s an exceedingly important one.”

The new courthouse is planned to open in the fall of 2022. Jarvey said it hasn’t been decided what will happen to the current courthouse, which opened in 1929. First priority goes to other government agencies, including the city and Polk County, he said. If there is no further government use, it could be made available for redevelopment.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa