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Jake Christensen at the original Thai Flavors

4/3/2024

Jake Christensen is a developer who has repurposed many of East Village’s 19th and early 20th century buildings, including E300 (Zombie Burger). That was a ground-up construction on a vacant parking lot with one of the largest residential geothermal systems ever in Iowa. We asked him to lunch, and he selected the original Thai Flavors at East 14th and University. 

“I love this place,” he said, speaking for both of us. Now that Taste of Thailand headman Nurack “Pak” Prasong has moved on to his third term in Thailand’s Senate, this eastside Thai Flavors and A Dong are the local O.G.s of Siam’s esteemed cuisine.

Over dishes that used tamarind and lime juice for sour flavors, palm sugar for sweetness and oyster or fish sauce, but never salt, for saltiness, we talked about the city we both call home and Christensen’s role in its revival and design. 

First, this is not the Jake Christensen who quarterbacked the Hawkeyes 2006-08. This JC is a Cyclone. 

“I majored in figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I started there in engineering and switched to finance.”

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What, besides historic preservation tax credits, attracted him to restoration projects? 

“I grew up on a farm near Riceville. We fixed everything that was broken. I just always felt that it was wasteful to throw things away or tear them down. I also think that old buildings are aesthetically more pleasing and that it’s environmentally responsible to preserve them. I have had to tear down a couple places, but I always prefer saving them.”

Were there any local inspirations in this? 

“Kirk Blunck and John Berguson got it all going in East Village and Court Avenue, respectively. Leslie Gerhart and Jodi Beavers’ great work on the Arlington-Hallet and Ayrshire apartments were eye-openers. I am a big fan of Jim Cownie.”

Christensen currently has two eye-opening projects of his own going on. First, he’s doing a much talked about makeover of the former Howard Johnson’s (HoJo) motel and restaurant between Grand and Ingersoll avenues. That is just a part of much larger development there. 

“I want to tie in everything between Nadia’s French Bakery on Grand and Firehouse/Panka/Panchero’s on Ingersoll all the way to the Ingersoll Starbucks. We are rebuilding the retaining wall east of the connector between the two avenues. It will include a staircase that opens access to the MoLo (motor lodge) for pedestrians and cyclists.”

How much will the MoLo recall the HoJo? 

“When we scraped off the old paint, we discovered the original bright orange tiles on the gatehouse building. The shapes of the roofs are iconic and must be preserved. We will illuminate the gatehouse roof with four original poles. Our signage comes right out of the glory days of Route 66.” 

And midcentury Las Vegas. 

I cleaned the HoJo swimming pool when I was young. Will it be restored? 

“It was so deeply buried that it turned out to be too much. We are building a new pool, with a bar. It will be the first outdoor hotel or motel pool in Iowa that is heated to stay open all year. I’m a skier, and that’s not uncommon in ski resorts. I think it’s new to Iowa.”

Will the Office Depot/Dollar General store building stay the same? 

“I am hoping to turn it into a single business building. It was once a Hy-Vee and originally a Hinky Dinky. We could also house three or two businesses there.”

Howard Johnson’s was the largest restaurant chain in America in the 1960s. Now they are all gone. I went there with my parents when it first opened to try their homemade ice cream and their fried clams. 

“I want to incorporate that kind of nostalgia in the project.” 

Much has happened on Ingersoll since you started your plans there. 

“I love Ingersoll. I live nearby and consider it my neighborhood. Think about its diversity — from the Greenwood Lounge to Oak Park. Harbinger, Chocolaterie Stam, the Cheese Bar, Lachele’s, Jesse’s Embers are all within a few blocks. The Register said that Lucky Lotus should be a top 100 USA restaurant. Big Grove, DZÔ, Noah’s. I could go on.”

A friend of mine rents his place in the neighborhood as an AirBnB. He says people, from Minneapolis particularly, come and spend whole weekends on Ingersoll. 

“I have already heard from people who want to plan staycations when the MoLo opens.”

How big will the restaurant and motel be? 

“We’re planning on 100 seats in the restaurant, which will be in the former medical offices at 2515 Grand. The motel will have 81 rooms. A gatehouse bar will seat 50 to 60. We have the original plans and want to recall them. We’ll refabricate and illuminate the Gatehouse spire blue. We plan on having great amenities to encourage staycations and Ingersoll tourists.

“Christensen Developer is a co-developer on the project. My wife, Susan Fitzsimmons, is leading it along with the founder/co-developer Markaus Ashworth.” 

A project at “Sixth and Center” is equally exciting. 

“Markaus named it that to recall the glory era of Center Street, when it was ‘the Black Wall Street of Iowa.’ The place will be an incubator for minority entrepreneurs. We are working with Evelyn Davis Center (for Working Families) to give people the tools to open businesses. Nadia (Ahissu) was our first.

“The easiest way to understand the building is as a riff on both strip malls and food courts. We want to recruit three underrepresented food/beverage operators, or restaurants that need to expand. They will share a kitchen but have separate kiosks to retail their food. There will also be two anchor tenants on the ends of the building. We are developing shelf space for other kinds of retail business there, too. We will accommodate food trucks and caterers, too. 

“The second floor will have six live/work studios. That’s relatively new to Des Moines. Senator Hatch put one on Grand, but there is a need for more.” 

Roofs stand out in some of Christensen’s earlier projects. 

“The Quonset hut roof was revealed when we got into the attic of 317 E. Court Ave. We could feel it then, but it had been buried from the outside. Peace Tree Brewery is there now. There’s a good story about how visionary people in Des Moines are. Jeff Bruning of Full Court Press has the Iowa Taproom in our building at 213 E. Third St. He suggested we recruit Peace Tree Brewing from Knoxville. Most places fear competitors. To Jeff, ‘more is more.’ I thought the basement space in 213 E. Third St. had too low of a ceiling for anything but storage. Jeff saw it as a speakeasy.”

What are Christensen’s favorite restaurants? 

“I love the pastries at Nadia’s. La Familia, Oak Park, Harbinger, Thai Flavors, Jesse’s Embers, Aposto, Noah’s. This is a great restaurant town.” ♦

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