Opponents Still Hoping To Stall Proposed Courthouse On Prime Des Moines Real Estate

May 20, 2019

Some Des Moines business leaders and city council members want the federal government to reconsider plans for a new courthouse on a coveted piece of real estate in downtown Des Moines. The agency in charge of the $137 million project could decide how to move forward as soon as Wednesday.

The General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings, said in a June 2018 environmental assessment that it wants to replace the current courthouse because there is not enough room to grow under one roof. Staff are divided between the courthouse and the adjacent annex.

Attorney Molly Weber used to work in the federal courthouse. She said the GSA should hold off on a new building to fix security and staffing issues. "I believe we should explore everything we can to do those upgrades within the existing footprint of the courthouse and the annex," she said.
Credit Grant Gerlock / IPR

Former Des Moines city councilwoman Christine Hensley said the agency could look for ways to arrange staff more efficiently without spending money on a new building.

“The buildings are in perfect shape, beautiful and most surprisingly they are completely underutilized,” Hensley said at a news conference calling on federal elected officials to intervene.

According to the GSA, the current location also lacks proper security in some places for moving prisoners to and from courtrooms and needs updates to provide better disability access. Renovation would not be feasible, the agency said, because the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Critics say if a new building is absolutely necessary it should not go where the GSA wants to build it: the former site of the downtown YMCA. The YMCA was demolished in October 2015. The GSA purchased the land from Hubbell Realty Co. last August for $6.5 million. Current city councilwoman Connie Boesen said it is one of the last places available to build on the downtown riverfront and a federal courthouse doesn’t fit with plans to develop the area as a recreational destination.

“There’s so much work that wants to be done on the riverwalk and the waterways that I think that it is troublesome that we are still going forward with a design that hasn’t met the specifications of what we want,” Boesen said, adding that the YMCA site would be worth more to the city as a private development that would pay property taxes.