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Construction begins on federal courthouse in Des Moines

By DAVID PITTAugust 28, 2019

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Officials broke ground Wednesday on a $136 million federal courthouse in downtown Des Moines, defying sentiments of some city leaders and residents who argued the prime 2-acre riverfront site is better suited as part of the city’s growing park district.

The courthouse will sit on a vacant lot once occupied by the YMCA, which was demolished in 2015. John Jarvey, the chief judge for the Southern District of Iowa, said there had been an exhaustive search but that some prospective sites were eliminated because they were priced far above appraised value. The riverfront site is outside the flood plain, environmentally clean and ready to build on, he said.

“This project deserves this place in the community,” Jarvey said. “It’s an important community function and this is the right site for the federal courthouse.”

The new building will rise to seven stories above the west bank of the Des Moines River. It will consolidate courtrooms and offices of judges and staff for the Southern District of Iowa, bankruptcy court, probation offices, a law library and the 8th Circuit federal appeals court, Jarvey said. The Southern District of Iowa handles federal civil and criminal cases for 47 counties in the southern half of the state.

The courts have operated out of a courthouse built in 1929 east of the Des Moines River and an annex, which the federal government pays to lease. Consolidating the court functions in one building will save taxpayers millions of dollars, provide improved security and handicapped accessibility not available in the existing courthouse, Jarvey said,

The site for the new building sits along the 1.2-mile (2 kilometer) Principal Riverwalk, a public outdoor recreation space development completed in 2013 featuring landscaped public spaces, parks, art and pedestrian bridges and pathways.

Concerns were voiced by citizens and city officials that the space if occupied by a federal courthouse would be exempt from property taxes and would be better occupied by a commercial project that would enhance the riverfront development offering retail space.

Court officials and the General Services Administration, however, chose the spot and bought the lot for $6.5 million last year. Once it was acquired city officials could only work with the federal agencies to ensure the best possible building for the space.

“We had some ideas on where the courthouse could go but once it came here our effort was to try and make it world class and function well and interact with the river and the rest of the city and I think we’ve gotten that accomplished,” said Des Moines At-Large City Councilman Chris Coleman.

Construction is expected to take three years with opening anticipated in late 2022.

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