Plan to expand downtown Des Moines homeless shelter envisions community farm, shopping and even entertainment

Kim Norvell
Des Moines Register

The homeless shelter in downtown Des Moines is undergoing a significant expansion that includes 24 permanent housing apartments and an "agrihood" for year-round growing of fruit, vegetables and fish. 

Central Iowa Shelter & Services, at 1420 Mulberry St., also has commissioned a study to reimagine the neighborhood. As envisioned, it would include offices, apartments, retail, entertainment and parking between 12th and 15th streets, and Walnut and Mulberry streets.

The 15-year plan, called Building Bridges, is aimed at integrating the downtown community with the shelter and its residents — and vice versa, said CISS CEO Melissa O'Neil. 

"How do we better develop this corridor knowing that the shelter is not going anywhere? How can we be a better neighbor?" she asked. 

Central Iowa Shelter & Services is building a 24-unit apartment building to the west of its existing shelter, 1420 Mulberry St.

Officials recently broke ground on the project's first phase: a $4.9 million, three-story apartment building on the west side of the existing shelter consisting of furnished studio units on two floors and administrative offices on the ground floor. 

The units are reserved for homeless people who have completed CISS' housing program that teaches them how to be good tenants. They live on the shelter's second floor and, when they complete the program, they receive Section 8 housing vouchers to use for Des Moines apartments whose owners accept federal rent subsidies. 

But a lack of affordable housing in the Des Moines metro keeps many residents in the shelter's 38 units, leaving little to no room for the 70 people on the waiting list to move in. 

"We expect the 24 units to fill up very fast — within the first month of occupancy," O'Neil said. 

The building plan supersedes a proposal to build a structure out of shipping containers in the water retention basin just south of the shelter. The site borders an active freight rail line, and railroad regulations raised the cost of carrying out the concept to a figure beyond what CISS was willing to invest, O'Neil said. 

►More:Central Iowa's first agrihood focuses on putting farm first in $260 million project

Instead, the retention basin — a site where homeless people have frequently set up tents — will serve as CISS' new agrihood, consisting of a 3,200-square-foot greenhouse; raised vegetable beds that will float if the basin floods; fruit trees; a dog park; walking trails; and an aquaponics system for growing tilapia. 

The shelter's residents will work on the farm, cultivating food to serve in the shelter. But it also will be a community garden, where anyone can come harvest what they need.

"If you are hungry or you are in need, you just come and get it. No questions asked," O'Neil said. 

"This greenhouse and this agrihood fights food insecurity long-term. This is about year-round growing and year-round food," she said. 

A site plan of Central Iowa Shelter & Services' agrihood, proposed to be south of its existing building at 1420 Mulberry St. It includes plans for a 3,200-square-foot greenhouse, fruit trees, raised vegetable beds, a dog park and walking paths.

CISS has raised about $200,000 of the $1 million needed for the agrihood plan. The goal is to have the funds raised and the garden open when the apartments are ready for occupancy in fall 2021. 

The shelter's expansion is all part of a multiyear effort to redevelop the Mulberry Street corridor to integrate needs and services for CISS and the community at large. CISS commissioned the study with input from downtown stakeholders and companies, its volunteers and Des Moines residents. 

It's a conceptual plan that, beyond the plans for the CISS property, would rely largely on private developers to realize, said Zane Muntz, partner with SHYFT Collective. 

"This was mostly about starting the conversation and giving good data and information that others could pick up and move the ball forward," he said. "So if you think about it from a developer's perspective ... what kind of information would be good for us to know that would give us confidence to start looking at this neighborhood?"

A bird's-eye view of a 15-year conceptual plan for the west end of downtown Des Moines, between 12 and 15th streets and Mulberry and Walnut streets.

The plan calls for: 

  • 93,400 square feet of office and workspace.
  • 296,000 square feet of multifamily residential space across 10 different housing groups, including affordable housing for people with severe disabilities, supportive housing for families, senior housing and some market-rate units. 
  • 445,000 square feet for community and wellness, including the urban garden and a parking garage. 
  • 60,000 square feet for hospitality and entertainment. 
  • 65,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.
  • 83,000 square feet for civic and cultural space, including public art, pocket parks and a pedestrian bridge over Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, linking the CISS agrihood to a proposed soccer stadium to the south

Several projects in the area already are planned or in the works, including new office space at the former H.B. Leiserowitz Co. building at 213 13th St., and a five-story apartment and commercial building in the vacant parking lot across the street. Plans also have been submitted to the city for a day care facility at 204 12th St. 

And CISS is working on a project called the Haven House, which would serve as a "sobering" facility in partnership with area hospitals, as well as several floors of affordable one-bedroom apartments. CISS' board of directors is still considering the concept and exploring financing options.

►More:What happens to youth too old for foster care? Affordable housing project in Des Moines to provide an answer

The Des Moines metro is facing a shortage of affordable housing for its workforce, and extremely low-income renters have fallen far behind. Families that earn 30% of the area's median income — for a family of four, $25,100 a year or less — cannot afford to live in 60% of central Iowa rental units, according to a 2019 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

To fill the gap, the Des Moines metro needs to add 11,848 homes for those renters. 

In addition, there were 681 homeless people living in Polk County as of Feb. 6, 2019, according to the Institute for Community Alliances. Ninety-two were unsheltered. 

Central Iowa Shelter & Services provides 150 emergency shelter beds, 19 efficiency apartments for veterans and 38 federally subsidized efficiency apartments for a total of 207 beds.

Kim Norvell covers growth and development for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8259. Follow her on Twitter @KimNorvellDMR.