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Civic Skinny

Architect Kirk Blunck had assets of about $6.4 million. Death: ‘Blunt force trauma, manner undetermined.’




Architect Kirk Blunck had assets valued at about $6.4 million when he died Jan. 24 under mysterious circumstances in a stairwell of the Teachout Building that he owned in the East Village.

And the cause of death now has been determined, sort of. It was “multiple blunt force trauma, manner undetermined,” according to the office of the Polk County Medical Examiner. That still leaves a question: Was he shoved or thrown down the stairwell on that Sunday afternoon, or did he fall? No one has the answer.

Blunck, notoriously oblivious as a businessman and careless as a landlord, died without a will. He had some large debts — he had defaulted on loans of $682,000 from the city of Des Moines, and a bank in Atlantic says he owed it about $560,000 when he died — as well as valuable assets. (The Des Moines loans also carry a 12 percent interest rate in case of default; the city and the estate apparently are trying to work out a settlement.)

Prep Iowa

An inventory of his estate lists artworks valued at nearly $1.8 million, a $1 million life-insurance policy, and half-interest valued at $341,000 in the home he owned with his wife on Waterbury Road. He had other real-estate holdings valued at around $3.6 million, according to court papers. The court inventory does not catalog his liabilities or claims against the estate.

Loyd Ogle, one of two lawyers representing the estate, says a vacant lot next to the Crane Building has been sold by the estate for $215,000; county records list the buyer as Bruce S. Myers. Ogle says the estate has a binding agreement to sell the Navarre apartments in Sherman Hill — which got so rundown two years ago that the city ordered the building vacated because of safety issues. He didn’t list a price, but the estate inventory values the Navarre at $325,000; the 12-unit building is assessed at $224,000.

Polk County District Court Probate Judge Craig Block this month approved a request from the estate to pay Ogle and lawyer David Repp $128,113.58, with at least half held back until the estate files its final report with the court. …

The Insurance Exchange Building was sold last month for $3.5 million to the Graham Group from Barbara Graham, widow of the founder of the company. The building, assessed at $5.7 million in 2001, currently is assessed at $3,070,000.

Two Rivers Bank & Trust has bought the properties on the northeast corner of 31st and Ingersoll from Richard Hurd for $1,250,000. Two Rivers, based in Burlington, has branches in Ankeny and West Des Moines as well as an office on Merle Hay Road. CV


A disaster averted, a neighborhood born

My wife and I have lived downtown for 11 years. We have watched it become a vibrant neighborhood — full of people young and old, people riding their bikes or walking their dogs (or riding their bikes while walking their dogs), full of bars and restaurants packed by neighbors and visitors, full of life.

Old warehouses are being turned into loft apartments, new townhouses are popping up like petunias, and block-square complexes are replacing surface parking lots and ramshackle buildings. The ballpark, where I work, is busy all summer not only with baseball but also with charity runs and weddings and gatherings of all sort. The Science Center lures the young and old to its I-Max shows, its traveling exhibits and its summer camps. Thousands jam the farmers’ market on Saturdays.

On nice evenings, fishermen drop their lines into the Des Moines River — while eagles from nearby nests soar above the neighborhood and now and then dive down to do their own fishing.

The Main Street of our neighborhood is Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, a graceful boulevard lined with ash trees, dotted with flowerbeds and broken up by patterned-brick crosswalks. With stoplights every couple of blocks, traffic flows smoothly — but not speedily. It is busy, but it isn’t dangerous.

A new chunk of the parkway opened the other week — it now stretches from Fleur Drive to East 30th Street — and as I checked it out on a test drive I recalled how close we came not to having a lovely parkway but instead to having an ugly speedway — an elevated highway with three-story-high entrance ramps and exit ramps taking over the landscape with the highway itself walling off north from south.

The drawings were drawn, the funds were gotten and the city’s politicians and administrators were happily ready to wreck the town.

And then Dave Feehan and Fred Weitz stepped in.

Feehan had come to Des Moines in 1996 to staff the Downtown Partnership, which was funded by Des Moines Development Corp., business leaders who chipped in hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in the city’s future to try to make good things happen. And, as it turns out, to stop bad things from happening. That year, Weitz was the group’s president.

Feehan says that shortly after he got here Weitz “invited me to his office and showed me a long scroll of paper that depicted the route and elevation of the proposed ‘bypass.’ ” He looked at it and thought “this is a wall that will cut off all new development to the south.” Weitz says Feehan was “the initial voice in calling attention to what a terrible thing it would be if the highway engineers had their fun and the elevated design was built.”

They went to the city to try to stop it, but they didn’t get very far.

“We talked to the mayor [Art Davis], the manager [Eric Anderson] and [councilwoman] Chris Hensley and got nowhere,” recalls Weitz. “Davis and Anderson pleaded with us not to oppose the freeway,” says Feehan. “They argued that state and federal funding was already in place and changing or killing the project would put Des Moines in jeopardy for any future major road projects for years to come.”

Stymied, Weitz called on Kirk Blunck, an architect then with the Herbert firm. Weitz asked if the firm could make a model of the elevated road to show how it would relate to the area and its buildings. “Kirk said they were about to take on several interns from Iowa State, and he’d put them to work on the project.” A couple of weeks later, they showed him the model — it was probably 12 feet long, Weitz recalls.

“It really did the trick,” he says. “We asked the council to come look at it…, and they did, and down to the ground came the road — without much further discussion, as I recall.”

Quickly, Anderson appointed a small committee, including Feehan, and gave it 90 days to bring the council a plan and recommendation for a ground-level parkway. The committee hired consulting engineers, held public meetings, and delivered its report. The City Council quickly approved it. Engineers went back to the drawing board.

“Because of the amount of money that had already been spent on the design efforts, the city and consultants were very hesitant to consider making design changes, let alone radically transforming the project,” recalls Kent Ahrenholtz, then a Kansas City engineer hired to review the project. But, ultimately, “they recognized that the desires of the community weren’t being met.”

The first segment opened in 2005. Development soon sprouted along the north edge of the roadway, helped in part by the move to downtown of the Science Center. Since then, hotels, apartment houses, bars and restaurants have popped up everywhere. A few years ago, development jumped the parkway, and warehouses on the south side of the road became lofts. Townhouses and new apartment complexes and hotels were added as the developers marched toward the Raccoon River and the Meredith Trail. Now, the river itself has been crossed, and projects are under way along the south bank of the Raccoon.

Feehan, who left Des Moines in 2001 and now is a consultant in Maryland, still keeps an eye on the city. He’s proud of what he did. “I have to believe Des Moines would be a very different and less vibrant downtown if the original project had been built,” he says.

Weitz, now 87 and still involved in civic issues, is equally proud. “I always felt,” he said the other day, “that this was one of my significant accomplishments.” CV

— Michael Gartner


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