Serving the City: Notes from the Urban Design Review Board

The Des Moines Urban Design Review Board (UDRB) works to promote sensitive, lasting, and sustainable development – its charge is to advise the City Council on City planning efforts, projects receiving City subsidy such as Tax Increment Financing, and projects on City property.  I have been serving on the UDRB since May 2018.

Discussion at Board meetings sometimes dives deep into the weeds, debating the finer points of specific design or sustainability strategies.  We consciously work to guide projects towards bold and engaging responses to their broader context, durable materials, and detailing that protects the City’s investment over time.

Four brief observations from my first few months serving on the board:

1. Des Moines is full of optimism and opportunity.

Forward-thinking people are snapping up developable property and they aren’t just holding it for years.  There is a vibrant energy in Des Moines that inspires visionary people to push the needle: the first mass timber building in Iowa, an entirely new neighborhood just south of downtown, a strategic plan for the East Village Market District, a new fire station and new animal control facility plan, two historic hotel rehabilitations, long-time businesses expanding in the city instead of moving out to the suburbs.  These are just a few of the incredible projects that have come in front of the UDRB in the past few months. It is an exciting time to be involved in the process.

2. Debate is healthy.

Members bring a broad variety of expertise and experience to UDRB discussions: design professionals, developers and contractors, attorneys, administrators, landscape architects… and we don’t always agree.  My experience has been that even when people dispute the finer points of a project, this multifaceted group generally coalesces around a common understanding and a set of defined recommendations.  This feedback to applicants is a targeted response addressing City planning goals, building strategic connections between past and future projects, promoting durable structures that protect public investment, and evaluating how they meet design objectives.

3. Come prepared.

City staff work with applicants to tune their projects and presentations before appearing in front of the UDRB.  The most successful projects tend to have thorough and complete applications – images, drawings, 3d views, and text that fully describe the proposed building. But in addition, they take the time to describe the whatswhys and hows.  What are the precedents influencing the design?  Why were key design decisions made? Why is the proposed design the right site-specific solution to create lasting value?  How does the building respond to the surrounding context?

4. Design Matters.

Design is all around us in the the technology we use, the cars we drive, the books we read, glasses we drink from, the clothes we wear, and of course the buildings and landscapes we occupy.  Design is the process of making conscious decisions to shape the world around us. The Urban Design Review Board’s work is important because through our discussion and recommendations to the City Council, we help influence the experience of inhabiting the City of Des Moines.