Des Moines Power Brokers Want to Build Massive Greenhouses Downtown

Des Moines Power Brokers Want to Build Massive Greenhouses Downtown

Des Moines Power Brokers Want to Build Massive Greenhouses Downtown

Joel Aschbrenner , jaschbrenn@dmreg.com

Published 5:40 p.m. CT May 25, 2017 | Updated 10:59 a.m. CT May 26, 2017

A group of business leaders want to build a string of greenhouses on the south side of downtown. They call it the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor.

 (Photo: Special to The Register)

(Photo: Special to The Register)

New York architect Mario Gandelsonas helped reshape Des Moines when he laid out his vision for the city nearly 30 years ago. That vision ultimately led to the development of the Western Gateway, construction of the Principal Riverwalk and resurrection of the East Village.

Now, Gandelsonas is back in town promoting his latest idea, one he says is equally ambitious.  

A group led by Gandelsonas and local venture capitalist Jim Cownie wants to build a string of massive greenhouses and vertical farms along the railroad tracks on the south side of downtown. They’re calling it the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor. If fully realized, the project would span the length of downtown.

“The dream is all the way from Meredith Corp. to the state Capitol,” Cownie said.

Cownie hopes to get buy-in from local players like Hy-Vee, DuPont Pioneer, MidAmerican Energy and Iowa State University. The urban farms could feed the desire for locally grown food, provide produce for area farmers markets, grocery stores and restaurants, and offer research space for Iowa State students and agriculture companies, he said.

Gandelsonas sees the project as a cultural symbol. It would provide the urban core with a link to the state’s farming roots and showcase Des Moines as a hub for innovative agriculture, he said.

“The idea is not just to build a greenhouse,” he said. “The idea goes deeper than that. It relates to identity, to health, to education. So it is really a grand idea.”

Far-fetched? Maybe. 

At this point, the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor is little more than an idea. No land has been acquired. No money has been raised. And it’s unclear who would own and operate the indoor farms.

Cownie thinks it could take 20 years and tens of millions of dollars to complete.

But after working behind the scenes for a few years, Cownie and Gandelsonas are beginning their campaign to drum up support.

They've pitched it to local companies. Officials from MidAmerican and Hy-Vee told The Register they're listening but they've made no commitments. 

Cownie and Gandelsonas held meetings Wednesday and Thursday with City Council members and other power brokers.

 Buy Photo  Mario Gandelsonas shows plans for the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor, a string of massive greenhouses on the south side of downtown Des Moines. Gandelsonas, a New York architect, and a group of local business leaders are trying to drum up support for the idea. (Photo: Joel Aschbrenner/The Register)

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Mario Gandelsonas shows plans for the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor, a string of massive greenhouses on the south side of downtown Des Moines. Gandelsonas, a New York architect, and a group of local business leaders are trying to drum up support for the idea. (Photo: Joel Aschbrenner/The Register)

In Cownie’s penthouse office overlooking the East Village on Wednesday, Gandelsonas explained to Councilwoman Christine Hensley how the greenhouses, lit with bright colors, would create a “river of light” visible to people flying into the city.

Hensley, Des Moines’ longest serving city council member, whose ward includes downtown, said she would be apt to support the project if the greenhouses operated as a for-profit entity that pays property taxes.

“The city has demonstrated that if we get the right people behind projects such as this, there is no question we will get it done,” she said.

The goal is to start with one half-acre greenhouse. Those involved said they don't know the exact cost. Ballpark: $5 million.  

Cownie thinks the best location is a piece of city-owned land near 12th and Mulberry streets, on the southwest side of downtown.

 A group of local business leaders is promoting the idea of building a string of massive greenhouses along they railroad tracks on the south side of downtown Des Moines. The idea, called the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor, is the brainchild of Mario Gandelsonas, the New York architect who created the vision for several Des Moines redevelopment projects including the Western Gateway and the Principal Riverwalk. (Photo: Special to The Register)

A group of local business leaders is promoting the idea of building a string of massive greenhouses along they railroad tracks on the south side of downtown Des Moines. The idea, called the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor, is the brainchild of Mario Gandelsonas, the New York architect who created the vision for several Des Moines redevelopment projects including the Western Gateway and the Principal Riverwalk. (Photo: Special to The Register)

The first step, Cownie said, would be to come to an understanding with city leaders. He wants the city to challenge him to raise the money for the first greenhouse, and if he does the city, in return, would offer the land for free.

“We need to demonstrate to the city that it would be good public policy to make available the site to start this process,” he said.

If the first greenhouse is a successful model, it could be replicated down the railroad corridor on undeveloped sites.

Cownie hesitated to put a timeframe on the project — he’s been burned by such promises in the past — but others involved in the proposal said they want to harvest crops within five years.

More: 13 of downtown Des Moines' craziest ideas – good and bad

The project will depend on acquiring land. Most of the property along the rail line is privately owned.

That includes land where Cownie has a stake. He recently partnered with the city to offer five square blocks on the east bank of the Des Moines River as a site for a new federal courthouse. It is one of four proposed courthouse locations and includes several blocks for private development.

Gandelsonas said the greenhouses would make nearby properties more valuable by providing a buffer between the rail line. His plan also calls for a pedestrian corridor along the greenhouses with a recreational trail and landscaping.

The idea is not entirely new. Gandelsonas pitched a farming corridor nearly 10 years ago during a city planning process. The original idea was an avenue of outdoor crops stretching across downtown to showcase Iowa agriculture.

 Mario Gandelsonas in Des Moines in 1989. A New York architect, Gandelsonas helped create a vision for the city that led to the create of the Western Gateway and the Principal Riverwalk. (Photo: Register file photo)

Mario Gandelsonas in Des Moines in 1989. A New York architect, Gandelsonas helped create a vision for the city that led to the create of the Western Gateway and the Principal Riverwalk. (Photo: Register file photo)

Among movers and shakers in Des Moines, Gandelsonas has a fervent  following. The Argentina-born, Paris-educated architect came to city in the late 1980s and helped craft the Des Moines Vision Plan, a blueprint for revitalizing the city.

Over the years, he has proposed some of the city’s most audacious projects.

One idea called for massive apartment complexes built in the shape of letters on the north side of downtown. He also dreamed of carving back the Des Moines River banks so City Hall and the World Food Prize would stick out on peninsulas.

But Gandelsonas is also credited with some of the city's biggest successes. He had the vision to demolish roughly 10 blocks of aging buildings and car dealerships on the west side of downtown to make room for a park. The project drew scoffs from skeptics and backlash from preservation advocates, but the development of the Western Gateway ultimately led to the construction of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and hundreds of millions of dollars of office development from Nationwide, Wellmark and Kum & Go.

Asked if the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor is even more ambitious, Gandelsonas said: “It feels as impossible as the idea for Gateway Park... It is quite an undertaking, but I view it as important to accomplish this.”

Why now?

 Jim Cownie (Photo: Register file photo)  Cownie, 72, and Gandelsonas, 78, say they’re getting older so it’s now or never.

Jim Cownie (Photo: Register file photo)

Cownie, 72, and Gandelsonas, 78, say they’re getting older so it’s now or never.

And downtown has the momentum to support it, Gandelsonas said.

It also helps that a compatible idea is gaining steam. Iowa State officials and local business leaders are working on a proposal to create a year-round, indoor market inside Kaleidoscope at the Hub, an aging downtown shopping center.

Iowa State’s Courtney Long, who is overseeing the idea, said the greenhouses could provide produce for the indoor market and collaborate in other ways. Long has been meeting with the greenhouse backers for about a year to discuss the project.

“I think it’s interesting and unique," she said. "There is nothing like it."

To lead the greenhouse effort, Cownie is considering Bill Menner, a consultant who recently served as a state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 A group of local business leaders is promoting the idea of building a string of massive greenhouses along they railroad tracks on the south side of downtown Des Moines. The idea, called the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor, is the brainchild of Mario Gandelsonas, the New York architect who created the vision for several Des Moines redevelopment projects including the Western Gateway and the Principal Riverwalk. (Photo: Special to The Register)

A group of local business leaders is promoting the idea of building a string of massive greenhouses along they railroad tracks on the south side of downtown Des Moines. The idea, called the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor, is the brainchild of Mario Gandelsonas, the New York architect who created the vision for several Des Moines redevelopment projects including the Western Gateway and the Principal Riverwalk. (Photo: Special to The Register)

Menner said there could be USDA grants or government loans available for the Des Moines Agricultural Corridor.

And there are good models to learn from, he said. A group in Cleveland recently opened a 3.25-acre urban greenhouse, though it sits in a more industrial area, not in the heart of downtown.

Menner sees the greenhouse development as a way to bridge the urban-rural divide that has grown amid water lawsuits, bitter politics and rural population loss.

“By placing urban agriculture in the center of a metropolitan area, you’re actually building a bridge to the producers and the folks who make a living (in agriculture) while at the same time creating access to locally grown foods,” he said.

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