Historic Fort Des Moines renovation brings much-needed affordable housing to metro

DES MOINES REGISTER — A historic military base that played key roles in the advancement of black and female soldiers has been renovated into apartments, bringing much-needed affordable housing to the metro. The $40 million Fort Des Moines Living is the outcome of years of behind-the-scenes work to revitalize the Fort Des Moines property on the city’s south side.

Des Moines-based Blackbird Investments converted four-century-old Army barracks and two horse stables into 142 apartments for low-income renters. It took four years and $25.9 million in federal, state and local tax credits to bring the project to fruition. Architects spent significant time figuring out how each building would be updated without damaging its historical integrity and significance, Blackbird spokeswoman Rachel Wegmann said.

Fort Des Moines was established in 1901 as a U.S. Army cavalry base on 640 acres south of Des Moines. Barracks, stables, officers’ quarters and other buildings were added starting in 1903.

It’s the site of two landmark moments in U.S. military history:

  • During World War I, it became the first training site for African-American officer candidates. It also served as a training camp for black medical personnel.
  • During World War II, it was home to the first Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. More than 72,000 women completed training in Des Moines to assist the military mission.

After WWII, the fort housed returning veterans, and in 1949, a U.S. Army Reserve training center was established there. The training center is north of Fort Des Moines Living and remains in use. Cadets still run the three city blocks where the apartments sit.

Blackbird chose the project based on its historical significance, Wegmann said. But the company is also committed to providing quality “housing for all,” she said. “We always like to do an adaptive reuse if possible,” Wegmann said. “This was such an opportunity and we saw this as a huge need, especially on this side of town.”

The Des Moines metro is in serious need of affordable housing for its low-income workforce, said Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. The county is short 8,000 affordable housing units, he said. “Hopefully, (Fort Des Moines) will spark additional acceptance of these projects across the region,” he said.

One-bedroom units rent for $750 a month. Two-bedroom units are $895. All utilities, including one year of internet access, are included. The units have a washer/dryer, microwave, and dishwasher. Some units are two stories with a bedroom and bathroom on the second level. All units are income-restricted. Renters must earn 60 percent or less of the area’s median income to qualify — that’s $33,480 for a single person or $38,220 for a couple. Nearly 60 percent of the units have been filled in the month since Fort Des Moines Living officially opened.

Fort Des Moines Living touched only a portion of the fort’s remaining acres. Other sections of the property are owned by Iowa Workforce Development, Blank Park Zoo, the city, and private owners. Des Moines planned to tear down three deteriorating buildings last year, including a granary and two mess halls, because of the high price to save them. Those plans are on hold while the city works with Blackbird, Blank Park Zoo and the State Historic Preservation Office to possibly redevelop what’s left of the fort’s grounds, Gatto said.

Blackbird has said it plans to build more housing and commercial properties on the fort’s former parade ground, about 20 acres north of the barracks.