Town Center Construction Under Way For A Better Johnston

Johnston looks to break ground with the new city gathering area on the corner of Merle Hay Road, and NW 62nd Avenue in the next decade.

Families gather to view the Amphitheater connected to town hall from The Yard.

Charles Pruett, Staff Writer

With the ushering in of a new decade, the city of Johnston looks to capitalize on the 2020’s with the new construction development project, the Johnston Town Center. Featuring unique retail, restaurants, office space, a remodeled town center, and more the new areas being developed on the corner of Merle Hay Road, and NW 62nd Avenue. “So we first started talking about it in 1999,” town planner for Johnston Clayton Ender said. In those last 20 or so years, the community of Johnston has had a hard time establishing a center ground, with the city widely separated by the vast fields owned by Corteva Agriscience. “It’s gonna bring that community gathering space that we currently don’t have,” Ender said. “It’s gonna be an exciting place, in my opinion.” 

In order to fully capitalize on this lively, and economically advantageous gathering space, the town center project had to be put on hold, and have the attention of the city turn towards multi-family complex housing to be developed around the area. Around 2007, the city had begun to address the housing situation by purchasing lots along Merle Hay Road north of NW 62nd Avenue. “The city began actively buying property, so then providing that to development for projects such as the Cadence apartments, the public safety building, Cornerstone Commons, so we really started to take an active role as a city after 2007,” Ender said.

“Immediately following (2008), we hit the recession, the one good part of that for the city, was there was an opportunity to buy some of those large lots (and) single family residential properties at a discounted price as they came on the market,” economic development manager for the city of Johnston, Adam Plagge said. 

The stage was set for the Johnston Town Center to begin its sought after creation for a communal territory, and the ideas for the town center were very bright. Standing as the middle ground, and helping strengthen the agricultural and nature-like bond that defines Johnston, is an area that will be called The Yard. “That’ll be a big open area where we can do movies on the green, we can do concerts, have food trucks line up around and have food truck festivals,” Ender said. “This area will also include a plaza, which in the summertime, will have areas for outdoor restaurants and a splash pad, and in the winter time it’ll convert into an ice rink. We really wanted to be sure we could use the space year round, not just summer and not just winter, all year round.” 

The area of the town center will also be very environmentally friendly, relating with the overall feel of the city of Johnston. “It’s gonna be a pedestrian and bike friendly environment, a place where people in the joined neighborhoods can decide, ‘I’m gonna walk or bike over to the restaurant tonight rather than have to drive my car,’” Ender said.

Plagge also shared results from the biannual survey given out to Johnston residents to explain their role in laying out the design for the town center. “Consistently, we hear from the public that they want more restaurants in Johnston, more retail in sort of a community gathering place, and so that was an impetus for a downtown concept to start taking shape,” Plagge said. 

A matter of creating these communal based and friendly spaces, is being able to have them look new, and give new opportunities to businesses in the Des Moines area looking to create momentum in what is going to be an economical priority for the city of Johnston. “Our sister company is Hansen company (construction), so they’ll build it and our Hansen real estate team will get tenants in there and work to kind of assemble most of this,” Andy Vis, who working for the Hansen construction company on the town center project said. Within the diagram for the current plans for the town center, there are 13 different sites planned to be filled with tenants, one even being a 4-story hotel. “I think a lot of the retailers would like to be here if a hotel was here, so it’s like the chicken or the egg, which one do you wanna do first, what’s gonna bring the others,” Vis said.

However, the hotel is only one of the 13 different sites planned, and restaurant, retail, and office space still need to be filled. “We’re talking to everybody,” Vis said. “Towards the end of the year, we’ll have better plans seeing what buildings end up going first. There’s an opportunity possibly for a bank. Nothing is quite set in stone yet.”

Talks with multiple different companies and businesses continue today to put a face to a building around the town center, as well as filling the large office complex north of what will be The Yard. “We talked to a couple different, larger office users recently,” Jordan Kleinschmidt, another Hansen construction company employee said.

As well as business opportunities that will stem from the town center project, the city of Johnston looks to improve a few things itself, with the main change being the construction of the newly modeled town hall. “At the same time, we were talking about city hall needs, it had been on the to- do list for some time after the library and the public works building had been completed to construct a new city hall,” Plagge said. “(The city) considered whether the city hall might be a part of this vision or whether it might be constructed near the library or located in the new school administration building off of 62nd, (but) the decision was made to incorporate it into the town center project.”

The current town hall for Johnston stands in what will soon be the middle of The Yard, but the current building is quite unconventional for such big plans. “We’re sitting in an old Hy-Vee building here that’s gone through a number of iterations, it doesn’t physically lay out very well for City operations and has a leaky roof and a parking lot that’s kind of going to pieces,” Plagge said. The newly remodeled town hall, currently under construction just east of the current town hall, is on track to be complete by the end of this year, and will even feature an outdoor amphitheater connecting into The Yard. 

Along with all the property that has been acquired, there are several lots that have not. Represented by the white space on the town center diagram, these are properties the city has not gained possession over. One of two spaces, being closest to NW 62nd Avenue, resides directly west of the planned hotel lot. The property owners as of now have elected to keep their space, and not be a part of the town center. As well as the lot closest to 62nd, there is also a larger unacquired lot closer to 63rd Avenue. “Longer term, you could see some additional parking, or additional commercial buildings on the south side of 63rd,” Plagge said. “Depending on the timelines of what they want to do, it could be incorporated into a parking lot, or you could have a small commercial structure.”

The town center project has been the main focal point from an economical standpoint in the last 3 years for the city of Johnston. With all the great and amazing plans, the bill is not going to be cheap. However, the final projected price point has not been fully published yet. “It’s gonna be hard to know,” Vis said. “We may build this and the keys over to someone else to own it, but for that to happen, all the numbers have to work. People have to be able to make money off of this and sustain a business to work. What you hope, is over the next five-10 years this gets fully developed and finished.”

The city does not exactly have a cost fixed yet, but a rough timeline from Ender helps provide some perspective as to what to expect. “The first commercial building (will be) coming at the end of this year or the beginning of 2021,” Ender said. “The entire project will probably take upwards of five-10 years to fully build up, but you will see the splash pad and ice rink pop up and all those amenities pop up immediately upon the initial completion.” 

With this citizen and pedestrian oriented gathering space, Ender also gave a few words on some construction projects that will take place on the nearby roadways as a warning to citizens and their way of day to day travel. “One thing you will notice is we are currently under construction with city hall, what you don’t see yet, is we will be reconstructing Merle Hay Road and NW 62nd Avenue, conjoining the site, and that’ll be under construction throughout 2020, to help build in a more pedestrian streetscape so people can cross the roadways safer and provide on street parking as well,” Ender said. 

Overall, many different groups and people have banded together to help give families in Johnston that sense of a focal point of the town of Johnston that has been described as “A place where people can come get an ice cream cone, park their car, and walk around,” Vis said. With an estimate of roughly five-10 years to fully develop and construct, the Johnston town center looks to blend together many different elements of the city of Johnston to establish a center space for citizens to enjoy and embrace as their own.