Community Speaks out Against Plans for New Federal Courthouse at former YMCA Site

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The feds took some heat Monday night from community members and city leaders, as folks pushed back on the government's preferred site for construction of a new federal courthouse. A week ago, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced plans to build a nearly $137 million federal courthouse at the site of the old Riverfront YMCA.  That decision still isn't sitting well with the city, for a variety of reasons.

The GSA held a public information session Monday evening at the Central Library Meeting Room, to provide a project summary and collect questions and comments. The GSA was clear at the outset of the meeting that those in attendance were allowed to ask questions, but that it would not be a question and answer session, and the GSA would not be able to answer those questions at the meeting. Instead, those questions would be noted, and answered down the road, if necessary.

Before listening to questions, GSA Regional Environmental Quality Advisor Karla Carmichael gave a presentation explaining why the GSA chose the location of the former Riverfront YMCA downtown as the preferred site for construction for the federal courthouse to be built, listing guidelines and objectives that had to be met.  One of those guidelines: Provide a space/facility that is located outside of the 100-year floodplain, and when possible, outside of the 500-year floodplain. Carmichael said, "The court system has designated courthouse operations as what we call a critical action category 4 facility, which means that placing that kind of an agency in a 500 year floodplain is not in the best interest of that agency."

There were four sites that were considered by the GSA, including the existing courthouse site, a site north of MLK and one south of MLK. However, Carmichael said the former YMCA site is the only site that is outside the 100 and 500 year-flood plains.

That didn't sit well with the public.

"I am quite frankly shocked that the federal government, if those are your criteria, would choose to even examine sites that didn`t meet your...basic needs," said downtown resident Rick Flatt. "To me, this was like we`re going to pick one and then three that are automatically discounted for some reason," said Flatt, arguing the GSA's report was written to arrive at a predetermined conclusion.

Backed up by City Council members in the room, City Engineer Pam Cooksey said the feds had old and inaccurate information on the flood plains.

In addition to calling into question the flood plains factor, downtown residents expressed concerns over what building a federal courthouse on a prime piece of real estate along the riverfront would do to a growing, hustling and bustling community.

"We finally have reached a point downtown where people get out and walk to dinner, walk to the Civic Center...walk to a bar somewhere," said downtown resident Isobel Osius. "You know, and you can see people on the streets, even nights and weekends. That`s the first time that`s happened in 30 or 40 years and I don`t want something that isn't going to contribute to that," said Osius.

The city had envisioned a mixed use development for the site, creating a lively riverwalk experience, and had hoped the GSA would have selected another site for the courthouse.

Fore more information on the GSA's plans for the new federal courthouse, click here.