Help find Iowa's best development projects

News coverage of economic development in Iowa tends to focus on large, heavily subsidized new construction, such as the Prestage Farms pork processing plant in Wright County or Orascom’s fertilizer plant in Lee County. Some of those marquee projects convert high-quality farmland into concrete boxes that could be built almost anywhere, like Apple’s planned data center in Waukee, or the similar Facebook facility in Altoona.

Since 2001, the non-profit 1000 Friends of Iowa has been recognizing projects that exemplify sustainable land use. Through November 13, the organization will accept nominations for this year’s Best Development Awards in any of the following categories:

Stormwater Management
Transportation/Complete Streets
Renewable Energy
Placemaking/Greenspace
Mixed Use
Innovative Leadership
Renovated Civic
New Civic
Renovated Commercial
New Residential
New Commercial
Renovated Residential

I’ve been an active supporter of 1000 Friends of Iowa for many years but am not involved in selecting the Best Development Award winners. An external panel of judges reviews all applications.

Every year, I’m inspired to see how a few committed people have transformed old and sometimes historically significant buildings. Reusing an existing space is not only environmentally-friendly, but also has a large multiplier effect for the local economy, especially in a downtown business district.

A wide range of projects may qualify for a Best Development Award. To get a sense of the diversity, scroll down to read about last year’s winners. You can view all the honorees since 2005 here. Please consider nominating a worthy contender from your area.

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Want to help under-funded schools? Invest in your downtown

“Footprint” of Jordan Creek Town Center development in West Des Moines, overlaid on the “East Village” neighborhood of downtown Des Moines, courtesy of Jim Thompson

Four of the oldest buildings in downtown Waterloo “have been renovated with their historic features revived,” John Molseed reported for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier on May 13. A block that had been vacant since 2007 will now hold “four commercial spaces and six loft-style apartments.” The city of Waterloo and the state historic tax credit program helped secure private investment for the project.

Renovating older buildings is much better for the environment than razing them. The economic benefits of historic preservation are not always easy to measure, but converting vacant buildings to commercial or residential use generates revenue.

Downtown property is the most valuable per acre, according to data compiled by Jim Thompson, a business specialist for the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Main Street Program. For that reason, Thompson advises anyone who will listen, “If you want to help your school districts, invest in your downtown buildings.”

His message should resonate with local officials after yet another state legislative session produced a disappointing budget for K-12 schools. With Thompson’s permission, I enclose below some materials he has created to show the impact of repurposing downtown buildings.

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Rest in peace, David Hurd

Broken Kettle Grasslands near Sioux City, Iowa–photo by Matt Hauge, used with permission

David Hurd passed away in Des Moines this weekend at the age of 86. Police have ruled out foul play in his deadly fall from his condominium building but have not announced whether he took his own life or fell accidentally. He had been suffering from Lewy body disease, a progressive condition.

Hurd was a legendary figure in local business circles, a past CEO of Principal Financial and member of the Iowa Business Hall of Fame since 1994. He left a bigger mark on the capital city than most people of comparable wealth have done. The Des Moines Register’s Lissandra Villa wrote about some of his philanthropic contributions here.

Many progressive organizations benefited from Hurd’s generosity, but it would be particularly hard to overstate how much he did for Iowa’s environmental community. Morgan Gstalter reported for the Register on Hurd’s gift that allowed the Nature Conservancy to acquire the first portion of the Broken Kettle Grasslands in the Loess Hills area: “Now at 3,217 acres, Broken Kettle is Iowa’s largest remaining native prairie and is home to bison and rattlesnakes.” The photo at the top of this post shows a tiny part of the stunning landscape. That gift alone would have secured Hurd’s legacy in the environmental world, but he was just getting started.

I became acquainted with Hurd during several years when we served together on the Iowa Environmental Council board. He was a co-founder of the organization. A few qualities stick out in my mind. First, he was attentive but generally quiet during meetings–the opposite of some business types who tend to dominate group conversations. Possibly reading my mind, Principal’s current CEO Dan Houston told the Register that Hurd was “one of the smartest guys you’d ever meet” but also “a very humble man, very capable, diverse, global, international and kind. He listened so, so very well.” Yes. Hurd was frequently the smartest guy in the room, but he never made a big deal about being the smartest guy in the room.

Hurd didn’t throw his weight around. He never pulled rank on any other board member, despite having given more money to the council than anyone else. I never heard of him trying to interfere with staff work, which large benefactors of many organizations have been known to do. When new ideas or programs were floated, he wanted to know about real-world impact: how would doing this thing potentially make Iowa’s water cleaner, or reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Even more unusual for a prominent person in the business community, Hurd did not restrict his giving to environmental organizations I consider “politically correct,” such as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation or the Nature Conservancy. He supported non-profits that opposed powerful corporate interests in our state. I’m thinking not only of the Iowa Environmental Council, which pushed for water quality rules that Big Ag groups fought all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court. He was a consistent donor to 1000 Friends of Iowa (on whose board I also serve), and our sustainable land use agenda is not popular with developers.

During his retirement, Hurd helped create the local Scrabble club. When people who had played against him would talk about how competitive he was at the game, I was always amused. In other contexts, he came across as laid back and didn’t give off a competitive vibe at all–which also struck me as atypical for a major corporation’s onetime CEO.

At the CNN Democratic candidates’ town hall a few days before the Iowa caucuses, I spotted David and his wife Trudy in the audience and went over to say a quick hello. I wish I had known that was my chance to say goodbye.

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Call to nominate Iowa's best sustainable development projects

Best Development Awards photo 1000FRIENDSBDA-150x150_zpsg4vgs3lg.jpg

The deadline is approaching for Iowans to nominate projects for 1000 Friends of Iowa’s Best Development Awards. Since 2005, the awards have recognized good development and planning practices by cities, companies, non-profit organizations, or local leaders.

I have long been involved with 1000 Friends of Iowa, though I have no role in selecting the award winners. The external panel of judges will look for buildings and projects that “help advance sustainability across our state by considering site placement, design, water efficiency, energy management, materials and resources used, indoor environmental quality, public use, and long-term benefits.” There’s no fee to apply for an award in any of the following categories: New Residential, Renovated Residential, New Commercial/Civic, Renovated Commercial/Civic, Mixed Use, Leadership, or Storm Water Management. Click here to download an application form to submit by December 15.

Every year I am inspired to read about the latest batch of Best Development Awards. After the jump I’ve posted summaries of the winning projects from 2014. You can find full descriptions and photos of them all here, including bullet points on “smart growth principles” that impressed the judges. Complete archives on all the Best Development Awards from the past decade are available at the 1000 Friends of Iowa website.

Bonus trivia for Iowa politics junkies: the Green Pilot Streetscape Project in West Union (Fayette County), which won the 2014 Best Development Award in the Renovated Commercial/Civic category, indirectly spawned the bogus “heated sidewalks” claim that became one of the big lies of the 2010 general election campaign.

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Warning signs on GMO feed and animal health

A new study in a peer-reviewed journal indicates that pigs fed a diet containing genetically-modified corn and soy had more severe stomach inflammation and (in females) heavier uteri than pigs fed an equivalent diet in conventionally raised corn and soy that was not genetically-modified. You can read the full article describing research on an Iowa farm here (pdf). For a summary of key findings, click here or here. The pigs “were reared under identical housing and feeding conditions.”

These results are disturbing, considering that more than 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in Iowa are now “Roundup Ready” biotech varieties, sprayed with glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup herbicide. Many anecdotal reports have linked animal health problems to genetically-modified feed. At the 1000 Friends of Iowa annual meeting on June 8, large-animal veterinarian Arthur Dunham described nutritional deficiencies, fertility problems, and unexplained deaths that he has seen increasingly in the cattle and swine herds of his clients. Dunham has been in practice for nearly 40 years and presented data about lower levels of certain vitamins and minerals (including B-12, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, and iron) in feed made from genetically-modified crops.

Monsanto and its allies dismiss such data as anecdotes and cite their own corporate-funded studies, which allegedly show the safety of GM crops. The new scholarly article describes the limitations of earlier research and calls for further studies on the subject. (Very few studies have been conducted over a time period longer than 90 days, for instance.) One Danish hog farmer saw big improvements after switching from genetically-modified feed, but Roundup crops are so dominant in this country that it can be hard for farmers to source animal feed that hasn’t been sprayed with glyphosate.

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Time to nominate Iowa's "best development" projects

The non-profit organization 1000 Friends of Iowa is accepting nominations for the 2011 Best Development Awards until early August. These awards recognize projects that incorporate “smart growth” principles and sustainable practices, which are good for local economies, the environment, and quality of life. The awards cover six categories: new residential, renovated residential, new civic or commercial, renovated civic or commercial, mixed-use, and leadership.

Anyone can nominate a project for a best development award. The project should be completed, not still in the planning stage. You can download the nomination form here. After the jump I’ve posted more details on the criteria judges will consider when evaluating projects. I’m active with 1000 Friends of Iowa, but I have never been involved in selecting the Best Development Award winners.

Mixed-use projects incorporate residential and business space, either in the same building or in a walkable neighborhood. The leadership award can apply to a city as well as to a developer. For instance, the city of Dubuque won leadership awards for its Unified Development Code (2010) and for its Historic Millwork District Master Plan (2008). The city of Iowa City won the 2009 leadership award for its newly-adopted Subdivision Code.

To give you a sense of different types of projects that qualify as “best developments”, I’ve posted information below about the 2010 winning projects in Des Moines, Dubuque, Ladora, Iowa City, and Davenport. The city of Dubuque and the Lakes Community Land Trust in Spirit Lake shared last year’s leadership award.

Click here for photos and information about the 2009 Best Development Award winners: the Marshalltown Public Library (new commercial/civic), Court Avenue Lofts in Des Moines (new residential), Durrant Building in Dubuque (renovated commercial/civic), Westfield Avenue Lofts in Waterloo (renovated residential), Plaza Towers in Iowa City (mixed use), and the Historic Millwork District Master Plan in Dubuque (leadership).

Projects in Davenport, Dubuque, Sioux City, Marion, West Des Moines and Iowa City won Best Development Awards in 2008. The ISU Design West building in Sioux City is one of the best Iowa redevelopment projects I’ve ever seen.

Projects in Dubuque, Elkader, Davenport, Lake Park (near Spirit Lake) and the City of Okoboji won Best Development Awards in 2007. Projects in Conrad, Central City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Des Moines won Best Development Awards in 2006.

The 2005 award-winners were Iowa City’s Peninsula neighborhood, the Van Allen building in Clinton, the America’s River Project in Dubuque and the Strand Theater in Grinnell.

On a related note, I was disturbed but not surprised to learn that the House Republican-backed 2012 appropriations bill covering the Environmental Protection Agency would eliminate funding for all of the EPA’s smart growth programs. The House has already voted on some amendments to that legislation and will likely pass the bill this week.

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