A burned shell of a house, boarded up and vacant, sits across the street from the office building where Tammy Harris works.
Next to the house is a vacant lot, and next to that is an empty gas station. City officials believe harmful contaminants have leaked into the soil at that site.
Those kinds of properties bring a community down, Harris says of the area near 22nd Street and Forest Avenue in Des Moines.
On Monday, the City Council launched a process to force owners of three such properties to sell them to the city. If the plan is successful, up to 18 row houses could be built on the land.
"I think the city of Des Moines slacks on some neighborhoods, this being one of them," said Harris, chief executive officer of Elpis Ministries, a nonprofit group at 2301 Forest Ave. that helps low-income families. "There are a lot of buildings in this neighborhood that need to be rehabilitated or torn down."
The right of a government body to acquire such properties, known as eminent domain, is controversial - so much so that state lawmakers last year toughened cities' ability to exercise it.
City officials must now prove that at least 75 percent of the three tracts is a slum or blighted, a public process that requires a council vote.
Monday's unanimous council approval marked the first time that Des Moines officials have moved ahead with eminent domain under the new restrictions. Officials from the Iowa League of Cities said they didn't know of any other Iowa city that had done so.
In 2005, Des Moines, with the support of neighborhood leaders and residents, named an area around Forest Avenue that included parts of the King-Irving, Mondamin Presidential, Carpenter and Drake neighborhoods as an urban renewal zone. Establishing the area allows the city to more easily exercise eminent domain and tap into federal grant allocations to improve the area.
On Monday, the council moved forward in its efforts to buy the three properties: the vacant gas station at 2201 Forest Ave., the fire-damaged house at 1405 23rd St. and a house at 1408 22nd St.
City officials are also considering exercising eminent domain to acquire a house at 1420 22nd St. for a second phase of the row house project. That part of the plan is several years away.
Ed Bodensteiner, who owns the house at 1408 22nd St., asked council members Monday to give him a fair price for the property.
"We should not have to lower our standard of living for this project," said Bodensteiner, who added that he hadn't been home in the past month to receive the city's notices expressing interest in buying the property.
Robyn Stokstad, who owns the gas station, also urged the council for a fair price for that property.
The city's attempts to buy the properties have been unsuccessful.
In all, four parcels are needed for the first phase of the row house development. Owners of one parcel at 2217 Forest Ave. voluntarily sold a vacant lot assessed at $46,500 to the city last year for $80,000.
The fire-damaged house at 1405 23rd St. is assessed at $51,800, according to county records; an independent appraisal done for the city last year valued it at $500. The vacant gas station is assessed at $16,700, below the city's appraisal of $43,000. The house at 1408 22nd St. has not been independently appraised but is assessed by the county at $47,600.
Des Moines has designated $600,000 for the acquisition and environmental cleanup of the area, plus relocation and demolition costs.
Councilman Tom Vlassis represents that area of the city and helped residents, business owners and neighborhood leaders launch the improvement plan about five years ago.
"It's just a start," Vlassis said of Monday's action. "So many more things have to be done in that area."
Bill LaHay, vice president of the Drake Neighborhood Association, has expressed concerns about the use of eminent domain but said the city has acted responsibly in this case. "I think people are comfortable and recognize eminent domain as a tool for cities like Des Moines to revitalize areas that have been neglected," he said.
Acquiring property through eminent domain can take years. Vlassis hopes the acquisition in this case will take less than a year and that residents will see the completion of the new houses in about two years.
Des Moines IA Register: http://desmoinesregister.com