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Civic Skinny

June 21, 2012
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This week: Register is moving, Christie is bobbing

The Des Moines Register will move to Capital Square by the end of the year, Cityview is told, and a group of businesses and businessmen is forming to buy the Register’s property and some other vacant buildings downtown in hopes of hurrying along the revival of the city’s core area.

The move apparently ends an unpleasant fight between the Register and the family of Dick Levitt, which has owned part of the land under the Register’s buildings for the past five years. The lease on the chunk owned by the Levitts — all the land under the 13-story tower and a small strip under most of the four-story annex — expired a few weeks ago, and negotiations to extend it fell apart. In March, in a story that went unreported, the Register sued the Levitt company, known as Locust Land LLC. Negotiations between Register publisher Laura Hollingsworth and one of Dick Levitt’s sons were described by people as ranging from spirited to unpleasant. The suit has not yet been dismissed.

Land under much of downtown was historically owned by various family trusts, but many of those deals were peacefully settled decades ago. The Register, though, under both the Cowles family and Gannett Co. ownership, never got control of all of the land under its buildings. When the leases would expire, a day that many thought would never come, the landowner would get control of the building.

The Polk County Assessor currently lists six owners of the land under the Register’s buildings, including the Register itself, which appears to own only the land under the building atop the parking lot and truck bay at 8th and Grand. Word is, however, that the Register has reached an agreement to buy everyone else out, which probably would be necessary before the business group takes ownership. Leases under the annex still have several years to run, Cityview is told.

The Register tower was built in 1918, a handsome twelve stories of white Bedford stone atop a story of polished granite, and it was a model of a modern newspaper plant of the time. Its legacy, if not its architecture, is historic. As well as being the home of the Register during its heyday — Sunday circulation once topped 525,000 — it was the home and birthplace of two radio stations, KRNT and KSO, and the first home of Channel 8, then known as KRNT-TV. (The “RNT” in the stations’ names stood for Register ‘n Tribune.) Look Magazine was started there, with a staff of four, and the Register and Tribune Syndicate prospered there as a marketer of comic strips (“Family Circus,” among others) and columnists. Ding Darling, Frank Miller and Brian Duffy drew there (and, briefly, a guy named Tom Carlisle), and Harlan Miller, Elizabeth Clarkson Zwart, Gordon Gammack, Herb Owens, Sec Taylor, Maury White, John Carlson, Donald Kaul, Rob Borsellino, Chuck Offenburger, Marc Hansen and others wrote their columns there. Picture Magazine was born and died there, and The Des Moines Tribune was killed there.

The four-story annex along Eighth Street was built after World War II, from the top down. It was planned to be seven stories, but Cowles family elders chopped it to four stories, planning to add the other three “when construction costs come down.” At the time, the building was not air-conditioned because the newspapers’ business manager, a man named Art Gormley, said that in an average summer there were only three days that were hot enough to warrant air conditioning. The first summer it was open was especially hot, and each day editor Ken MacDonald would ask Gormley, “Is this one of the three days?” Air conditioning eventually was added.

The land and buildings cover two-thirds of an acre — half of a block — and are assessed at $3,510,000. No sale deeds have been recorded, and it’s unclear what the Register is paying for the leases or what the downtown group will pay for the land and buildings. The Levitts appear to have paid about $400,000 for their land in January of 2007.The tower building isn’t in very good shape, but without it the annex is pretty useless, since the elevators are in the tower building. Demolition of the whole thing is one option. It’s also unclear what will happen to the large, iconic globe in the lobby, though it probably will end up someplace like the Science Center or the state historical museum.

The buying group probably will work with the city to package and subsidize the property — either vacant or with the buildings — to entice developers to the corner, once one of the busiest and most important corners in the city. It’s unclear how long that might take, but the development group, which is reminiscent of the old Des Moines Development Corp. that spearheaded a downtown renaissance a generation ago, is structured to be patient. ...

Iowa Democrats gathered to congratulate one another and do some party work over the weekend, but the talk invariably turned to Congressional candidate Christie Vilsack’s performance on public television’s “Iowa Press” the other day. It wasn’t very good.

In fact, said one astonished elder, it was dreadful.

She spent almost the entire half hour bobbing and weaving.

“Didn’t anyone prepare her?” asked another old-timer who is high in the party.

Asked repeatedly about the President’s health-care initiative, she danced. Panelists Kathie Obradovich and Kay Henderson — neither known for Yepsen-like probes — got frustrated.

Obradovich: I’ll ask you one more time — is there anything in particular that you would change? Anything you have in mind that you would want to change no matter what happens with the Supreme Court?

Vilsack: Well, I think there are probably a lot of small things.

Obradovich: But no one big —

Henderson: So you support the mandate?

Vilsack: No, I think there are a lot of — I think there are a lot of different ways that we can go about this creatively. I think we need to make sure that everybody has access to care. Everybody does have access actually, it’s just people can go to the emergency room. So everybody has access. But we need to make sure everybody has access that is affordable to all of us so the rest of us aren’t having to pay for it.

Obradovich: Are you saying you don’t support the mandate then?

Vilsack: I think that we’re going to see a lot of different ways that we can make sure that everybody has access. So, it might be the mandate, it might not be the mandate.... We’ve got a lot of great minds. We can figure out how to do this, mandate or not. We need to make sure that people have access.

Henderson: We’re journalists, though, we like black and white. Are you for the mandate or are you against it?

Vilsack: I don’t — I’m not for it or against it. I think we need to figure out a way to get everybody access to health care, affordable health care. And so we won’t know what happens with the Supreme Court. When they do decide what they’re going to do then we’ll move on with whatever they have decided.

Then, surprisingly to Democrats, she danced around gay marriage, never saying whether she was for or against it. Ultimately, it came down to this:

Obradovich: “...As a resident of Iowa if the Iowa legislature asked for a constitutional amendment to require marriage to be between a man and a woman only would you vote for that?

Vilsack: Well, that is a state issue. I’m running for Congress, and so I’ve told you how I would vote in Congress. I would vote to make sure that people had the opportunity at the state level to make that decision.

Rep. Steve King quickly issued a press release saying Vilsack’s answers were the political equivalent of the children’s game “Duck, Duck, Goose.” That, of course, is not the version Nancy Sebring was playing with her tattooed friend.

Meantime, as the Register seems poised to print still more on Sebring and her so-far-anonymous friend, one thing seems clear: These days, the former school superintendent probably has a better chance of getting a date than a job. CV

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