Oh, Ames

Another fall semester commences next week at Iowa State. After spending five years in Ames I graduated this past spring and am now working as an interim intern at my favorite CR design firm. While I enjoyed my time in Ames, I can’t say I’m too upset about not going back next week. The following, unfinished post might begin to explain why. Please excuse its incompleness, possible out-of-dateness, and the composition skills of a younger me.

“Reflecting on Ames: Lonely by Design”

I began writing this description of Ames back in December 2008. Finals were over at Iowa State and half the population of Ames had left. I stayed in town for a few days to work extra shifts at CyRide – only a few passengers riding my bus. In the middle of winter when students leave, Ames turns into a very empty and lonely place. I was living in Frederiksen Court north of campus at the time, which I always found to be disconnected from the rest of campus and similarly the city.

The whole city of Ames is physically fragmented and divided by greenspace surrounding Squaw Creek. The original city of Ames, where downtown is located, developed about half a mile east of the creek; but when Iowa State was founded, the campus was developed just to the westof the creek. While homes and businesses have been developed to the west of campus, and addition development has taken place to the north and south of the original city, a noticeable void in the middle still remains.

Ames map

Unlike the University of Iowa, which developed its campus right adjacent to downtown Iowa City, ISU was built in empty farmland, a mile away from town (after all it is an ag school). Because of this, Ames does not have the vibrant and unified, central downtown like Iowa City, but instead two, sort-of ok “downtowns” and no established “heart” of the community.

Lincoln Way, the main east-west drag through town, divides Ames into north and south. It owes its name to the original Lincoln Highway route, running right through the center of town (the modern Highway 30 is now a freeway on the south fringe of town), and was a major development and redevelopment force through Ames’ history. Around the university Lincoln Way is actually quite nice and walkable, but everywhere else it leaves much to be desired. To the east of campus, the road passes through vast open land of the Iowa State Center complex to the south, and intramural fields to the north near University Boulevard, before crossing Squaw Creek. Despite giving visitors the impression that Ames is a sparse, wasteland of meaningless greenspace and parking lots, University Blvd. is the designated gateway to Iowa State.

Along Lincoln Way, the southern edge of campus, is Campustown, a small business district and neighborhood that developed organically right to the south of campus in the late 19th through mid-20th century. Established storefronts line two or three blocks of Lincoln Way and about two, north-south blocks of Welch Avenue. Home to numerous bars, some places to eat, and a few miscellaneous stores and businesses, the neighborhood serves ISU well. Surrounding the commercial district are older houses – mostly used for student rental housing; fraternity and sorority houses, walk-up apartment buildings, and even a few apartment highrises. Mostly built in the 1990s, the highrises were not held to very strict design standards so they were built cheap, are unattractive, and while increasing the density of Campustown (good), it degrades the aesthetic and historic integrity of the area. A few years ago the City of Ames passed a moratorium on new highrises to preserve the historic scale and charm of the area, but an ordinance requiring better design would serve the area much better.

My appreciation for the walkability and mixed-uses in Campustown should not be understated, coming from my freshman year at North Dakota State, which lacked any established campus town area for students to gather and identify as their own. Campustown sustains vibrancy around campus into the evenings and late into the night on weekends. It grounds Iowa State as a place with people, with activity, with life. However the commercial area is relatively small and there is little activity when students are away. Locals tend not to frequent this area – not much to offer them besides the bars – so interaction between students and members of the community is generally limited.

A mile down the road is the real downtown Ames. It is certainly nice enough, but railroad tracks divide it from Lincoln Way to the south, creating a physical and mental barrier. With that, when driving or walking down Lincoln Way, it’d be hard to know you’re just a block from the city’s historic center, as auto-oriented businesses and the Lincoln Center shopping center has dominated this stretch of road for decades. Main Street is a well-kept stretch of continuous storefronts with some fine dining and specialty shops. There are a few taller buildings (maybe five or six stories max) in downtown. The tallest, most dominant structure in downtown is of course the Ames power plant, situated across Duff Ave at the eastern terminus of Main Street, literally the end of town.

Away from Main Street, buildings are spaced out as many historic structures have been demolished over the years for parking and ugly bank buildings. The combination of open lots, railroad obstacle, and literally being just blocks from undeveloped land, downtown has a certain vulnerable feeling to it. It is exposed. Except to the north where it flows fairly harmoniously into a historic residential area, downtown seems cut off to the rest of town, especially its most active arterials (ie. Lincoln Way). Downtown is never visibly very active and the fragmentation of former built-up, urban density does little to create a cohesive, continuous, united-feeling city center.

Ames’ main big box commercial strip is South Duff Ave between Highway 30 and Lincoln Way. Right on the edge of town, the backsides of most businesses face cornfields. Big box destinations include: Target, Super Walmart, Best Buy, Kmart; and south of 30 are Lowes and Sam’s Club. The whole stretch is a mismatch of old remaining sheds and non-retail commercial buildings, next to newer, cheaply built chain stores and restaurants. Most of the big boxes are located far away from the street with enormous parking lots in the way. Some fast food outlets and strip buildings are closer to the road but there is no continuity or consistency. The great distances between buildings and lack of any real massing of building by the road make it feel insecure and aesthetically awkward. Decorative, almost pedestrian-scaled street lamps line the street, but do little for walkers when there isn’t even a continuous sidewalk on either side. And don’t even think about direct pedestrian paths from the street to entrances of stores and restaurants in places a sidewalk does exist – that would certainly be too much to ask.

Honestly the most, consistently active place I know is inside North Grand Mall. Located at the north edge of town, mostly surrounded by medium and low density residential, the mall is not physically well-kept, but maintains decent occupancy and mid-level retailers because it’s the only one in town (though a new “lifestyle center” mall is supposedly in the works at I-35 and E 13th Street). To compete with the new mall, North Grand is proposed to undergo a major renovation that will transform the entire south end (former Sears and Walgreens location) in to an outdoor, mini lifestyle-center adjacent to the spruced up existing indoor mall. Despite being announced well over a year or two ago, little has happened with either shopping center development. One glimmer of hope, though – a new, stand-alone Walgreens has been built at North Grand as an outparcel by the main entrance. This opens up the old attached Walgreens space, with the already vacated Sears store to make way for the “Shops at North Grand.” Regardless the new Walgreens is an attractive building and fills part of the long spatial void of the parking lot along Grand Ave.

Also in the area – a Wal-Mart and Cub Foods are located north of the mall. Further north is a small strip mall with a terrible name, “The Northern Lights Center.” The commercial buildings are generally surrounded by inexpensive apartment complexes, duplexes, and then flows back into single family neighborhoods.

West Ames…go west!

[This post was never finished…sorry]

1 Comment

  1. I found this blog post while looking for information on the North Grand Mall renovation project. For someone who didn’t live in Ames very long, this is a very insightful post. I was born in Ames and have lived here for all but two years of my life, including my undergrad and graduate degrees. I have no disagreements with anything you wrote, and I wish your post had been completed.

    Where should Ames go from here? My opinion is that the Squaw Creek/Skunk River floodplain is THE one single obstacle preventing the smooth development of Ames. It is an annoyingly large natural barrier without providing much in term of natural beauty (quite unlike the Iowa River in Iowa City, or the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, or the Des Moines/Raccoon rivers in Des Moines…) The most Ames has been able to make out of it is a bunch of parks, which, while nice, really do divide up the town into three distinct sectors that are difficult to bridge.

    For a long while I thought that Ames should pursue a policy of trying to reclaim its more decrepit sectors in the heart of town, but I find myself drifting away from this viewpoint–the natural barriers remain no matter what renovations are done. I think the better policy would be to develop to the far north and west–something that Ames has been doing a lot of lately. There are emerging town centers in the Somerset area and at the South Dakota/U.S. 30 interchange. The town should seek to develop around the northwest end which, while partially forested around Squaw Creek, at least avoids the problems of a major floodplain. In the north, North Grand Mall will remain a major factor in development while Ada Hayden Park and the Ames Country Club will raise property values. The west will largely be devoted to apartments aimed at the student populace (as it has been.) South Duff will also retain relevance due to being near U.S. 30 with easy access to the west. Campustown will be the main town center in the far future, with the old downtown district shrinking in size and importance.

    Two new arterials will need to be built to accommodate this: Bloomington Road will have to be extended all the way from North Dakota to I-35, bridging Squaw Creek; North Dakota will have to bridge the railroad and widen to Bloomington. I am pleased to note that both of these projects are in the official Ames Long Term Transportation Plan, which projects out to 2035.

    I think the city council is attempting to work in this direction; however, they are held back by a politically active set of townies who want to keep Ames as close to the state it has always been in–basically what you described, which is what they’re happy with.

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