Jim Hubbell at Bauder’s7/5/2017
As Chairman of the Board of Hubbell Realty, James (Jim) W. Hubbell III has watched Des Moines change and grow from a top-floor perch. We asked him to lunch to talk about 45 years of real estate development in Des Moines. He chose Bauder’s.
“I have been coming here since grade school. I was a traffic guard at Greenwood (Elementary School), and afterwards I would go here or to Reppert’s (Pharmacy) for a sandwich and a phosphate. So much changes that I love places that don’t. I think the (jig saw) puzzles (which line an upper shelf across the restaurant) are the same ones I saw here in the 1950s. I certainly have never seen them sell one. The menu is the same, too — simple sandwiches and soda fountain treats. The ice cream is homemade,” he explained while ordering a toasted cheese sandwich, a bag of chips and a malt.
What does Hubbell think about downtown’s growth since he began working here in 1973?
“In the 1970s, there were no reference points for a city Des Moines’ size. There were big cities reviving their inner city, but nothing this sized. The first big impetus to change was building the skywalk system. It set us apart and gave us an identity. Kansas City people would come here and be impressed. Yet there is still a lively debate about whether the skywalks are a good thing on the bottom line. The argument being that they hurt street-front business opportunities. Lines have been drawn. The new downtown library insisted that no skywalk cross into the space above their footprint. When Iowa Realty proposed crossing Court Avenue with skywalks, they were denied by the city,” he explained.
“Going back to 1973, the other big deals were the building of the Ruan Center and the Marriott Hotel. Both demonstrated that locals were willing to invest locally. About the same time, a bond issue to build the Civic Center and what is now Cowles Commons got over 50 percent of the vote. It wasn’t enough to carry the issue, but it showed that there was support for the project. We did it anyhow. (Mayor) Dick Olson was a powerful force. He worked for Principal and also had the mayor’s office behind him. It was hard to say no to him. He had a city manager, Rich Wilke, who knew how to close a deal, too. They both knew how to count, and if they came up a vote or a dollar short, Olson knew how to go out and find it,” he recalled.
“Ruan’s example of investing in the community spread. Knapp Realty built the Civic Center apartments, completely with equity. They borrowed no money for the project. That showed confidence in Des Moines. Those apartments sold out, showing that people were interested in downtown living. The Plaza took longer to become successful. That was built by a Minneapolis developer and might have been too expensive for its time. He had to rent a lot of spaces because of slow sales. Eventually people on the upper levels put together some serious luxury units,” Hubbell recalled.
When did the computer age begin effecting downtown?
“I remember when we bought our first mainframe word processor. It was huge, and we did not know what to do with it. The only advantage we could think of was saving money on White Out. It took the secretarial staff to show us their true value. Citywide, the biggest innovation was what Connie Wimer did at Iowa Title. She was years ahead of everyone in her industry in computerization,” he said, adding that her Des Moines company had the ability to complete a title in two days rather than a week or more. That meant everyone in a real estate deal got paid faster.
There must have been a few slumps?
“1973 to 1983 were good times. Then the farm economy had crises, and things slowed down. Interest rates were in ridiculous territory, too. That always slows things down. The most important changes in that period were in design. The idea to define East Village happened then. Two-way traffic was important. Previously, designers loved one way streets because they moved people out of downtown as fast as possible. Two-way streets still get everyone out, but they also let people in. Fleur Drive changed then, too, with beautification projects launched by Janet Ruan. (Princeton designer) Mario Gandelsonas brought some good inspirations to town. I recall he insisted on red brick construction in East Village because Des Moines has a long history of manufacturing red bricks. Melva Bucksbaum was instrumental in bringing Gandelsonas here. His vision led to the sculpture park, too,” Hubbell replied.
“The early 1990s were tough times, too. The Savings and Loan crisis hurt real estate a lot. We tell our young talent that the business is always going to be cyclical, so plan on the hard times. One old farm broker told me years ago that the toughest times are the good times, because you start thinking you can’t do anything wrong. That is good advice,” he warned.
Hubbell thinks that Des Moines is a perfect size for the real estate business.
“We are just small enough to discourage the huge international developers to stay out. Minneapolis was built by giant Canadian corporations, and no one there even knows who owns the building next door. Here we all know each other and get along well. We watched each other and learned from them,” he explained.
What developments does Hubbell think were the most significant during his time?
“The redesign of the World Food Prize is fabulous. People come from all over the world and are impressed. It’s really something to be proud of, and we almost tried to do it on 50 cents to the dollar. The building of the Civic Center has had a great long-term effect on downtown development; it’s so successful. Residentially, the Country Club development, by Iowa Realty in West Des Moines, has probably made the biggest impact on suburban Des Moines. On the financing side, tax incentives have saved many historic buildings, helped convert warehouses into offices, provide low income housing for young workers, and built a young work force.
“I don’t know that city or state governments realize how essential they are to getting good things done,” he said. ♦