By Kevin Harty, Des Moines Register
Justin Mandelbaum believes Des Moines is on the verge of something big.
Sure, Iowa’s capital city has several good things going for it: Plenty of available jobs, a relatively low cost of living and a reputation for a high quality of life.
But Mandelbaum thinks with some more work the city could blossom into a top-tier destination for residents and travelers alike, rivaling the likes of Austin, Texas; Nashville and Portland, Oregon.
The 39-year-old developer already has made strides in reshaping the cultural fabric of Iowa’s capital city. His brainchild, Mainframe Studios, brought dozens of affordable artist spaces — with more on the way — into a former telecoms building on the outskirts of downtown.
The biggest test for Mandelbaum, one of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2019, likely lies ahead: His company plans to begin construction in 2019 on a 40-floor downtown tower — a project that would redraw the city’s skyline and bring a decidedly different form of living and entertainment to downtown.
A Des Moines native, Mandelbaum moved to the East Coast for college and worked there several years. He said he quickly learned people there weren’t impressed by his Iowa roots — perceptions others echoed during his extensive travels and time living abroad as well.
“It’s like you’re automatically looked down upon,” he said. “That was a pretty rude awakening for me.”
When he returned to Des Moines in 2008, it was with a mission of changing those perceptions by bringing big-city projects — particular those focusing on the arts — to Des Moines.
Austin and Nashville are known as music cities. Denver and Portland are known for their beer. So, he mused, why couldn’t Des Moines be known as an arts city?
“There aren’t too many art cities out there,” Mandelbaum said. “And Des Moines really has an opportunity to take what we’ve already done, take what’s in the works and really start branding ourselves as an arts community.”
Linking the arts to the city’s success
Mainframe Studios opened in October 2017 inside a former data center on Keosauqua Way. Currently, 71 affordable studios are open and occupied and the organizers will begin renovations in 2019 to open up even more studios.
Each month, casual fans and serious connoisseurs pack the place for open studio events, allowing visitors to see how blown glass, jewelry and paintings are produced.
Mandelbaum, president of Mainframe’s board, oversaw a similar project in Lowell, Massachusetts. He says he’s an art fan, but no guru. But he recognizes the value the arts play in building a community’s cultural and economic health.
He said he’s learned that owning a for-profit arts building is a tough sell, as artists easily become priced out. So he thinks his nonprofit framework, designed to become self-sufficient after the completion of a $12 million fundraising campaign, could serve as a model for other cities.
“I look at it more as like a finance play and a real estate play, less than an arts play,” he said. “And from a bigger perspective, this is really an economic development project.”
Of course, many in the community already recognize the importance of the arts and their connection to both quality of life and the overall economy.
“Des Moines is already recognized nationally as doing great things with the arts and putting the arts forward,” said Sally Dix, executive director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, which raises funds and provides grants for the arts. “And I think Justin has done a great job of making other people understand that — that arts are a critical part of what makes our region so successful.”
Mandelbaum’s ‘risky proposition’ for downtown
Mandelbaum Properties’ The Fifth is slated to rise up along Fifth Avenue between Court Avenue and Walnut Street in downtown Des Moines.
Together with the 33-story The Blackbird, planned for a site just across the intersection, The Fifth will change the city skyline for the first time in decades.
Upon completion, the 452-foot building would become Iowa’s third-tallest, behind only the 45-story 801 Grand tower and the Ruan Center, which has only 36 floors but is 460 feet tall.
In September 2017, Mandelbaum described the tower’s design as “sculptural,” with a modern aesthetic inspired by the nearby Polk County Justice Center, the Central Library and the recently completed $150 million Krause Gateway Center.
And while it isn’t all about height, he said the $170 million skyscraper complex will raise the city’s prominence: “For better or worse, people judge a city by its skyline,” he said.
In addition to new office space, a movie theater and restaurant and bar, The Fifth will redefine luxury apartment living here, Mandelbaum said. Two-bedroom units will span as large as 3,600 square feet and feature top-of-the line finishes and floor plans.
He already plans to move his family onto the 39th floor.
The tower will also house 21C boutique hotel, an art-themed concept that will bring photography, paintings and sculptures downtown. The lobby will include rotating exhibitions of contemporary art open to the public.
“You’re living in a building with a museum,” Mandelbaum said.
But real estate projects — particularly huge, expensive ones — can fall apart.
A recession, troubles securing financing or challenges proving adequate market demand could doom a project like The Fifth, said Erin Olson-Douglas, economic development director for the city of Des Moines.
While the city has already signed off on the parking garage phase of construction, Mandelbaum Properties has not submitted the final site plan for the tower.
“It remains a risky proposition,” Olson-Douglas said. “So it’s still in the maybe category.”
For his part, Mandelbaum said “there’s no question” that the tower will be completed. But Olson-Douglas said one thing is certain: The developer has put transformational projects on the agenda — both with Mainframe and The Fifth.
“They are new dimensions to the city and the region really that haven’t existed previously,” she said. “They’re things he has seen and brought in from other places. And I concur they will really up Des Moines’ game in terms of its standing as a city.”
What’s next for Mandelbaum
Mandelbaum says he has some ideas about what comes next after Mainframe and The Fifth, but he’s not ready to make anything public.
“I would say we have some very good ideas brewing,” he said.
But to give a glimpse of where his thoughts stand, he shares some broad ideas for the city.
He thinks downtown’s skywalk could be leveraged into a unique arts experience, in the vein of New York’s High Line, a public park built on an old railroad spur.
Mandelbaum said the skywalk is great for dodging winter weather, but it can be drab and potentially turn off newcomers. Just imagine the first impression those hallways make on a new recruit interviewing in Des Moines, he said.
“Talk about stacking the deck against yourself if you’re a company, right?” he said. “There’s like 50 buildings connected to the skywalk, so if each building owner chipped in a little bit, we’re not talking like a big capital project.”
To be clear, he doesn’t want to build this but thinks someone should. Likewise, he thinks downtown needs more parking space and a proper food hall or indoor market.
The city already boasts an enviable quality of life, Mandelbaum said, and those things would only reinforce that identity.
“We’re pretty close,” he said. “I feel like Des Moines is on the brink.”
About ‘People to Watch’
The Des Moines Register’s “15 People to Watch in 2019” are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will be published in the Register through Jan. 6. To read about past People to Watch, visit desmoinesregister.com/peopletowatch.
BORN: Des Moines, 1979
RESIDENCE: Des Moines
EDUCATION: Bachelors degrees with concentrations in real estate and finance from the Wharton School and the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania
CLAIM TO FAME: Brains behind Mainframe Studios and The Fifth
FAMILY: Wife, Li Zhao; and daughter, Lulu, 2