Larry James Jr., Counsel, Faegre Baker Daniels //
What inspires you?
The city of Des Moines and its people. There is an optimism here that anything is possible and we have the leadership to get it done. We are fortunate to have a civic culture that embraces volunteerism. People give of their time and talents to causes and projects and see them through to completion.
In your opinion, what are the top 3 issues facing Des Moines today?
Mobility: Scattered downtown projects must be knitted together by a network of streets designed for all users. Our current system of one-way, car-oriented streets does little for street-level retail and is uninviting to pedestrians and bicyclists. In addition, our transit system is perennially underfunded and under-appreciated in importance.
Growing pains: Downtown Des Moines is undergoing dramatic change. Over the next two years an estimated 2,500 units of housing will be added in and around downtown in a market where average rents are rising fast. Integrating these projects into the city by way of designs that echo the existing urban, walkable environment will remain a challenge.
Bring everyone along: Immediately to the north of our booming downtown are neighborhoods that remain in intractable poverty. While crime is dramatically lower than other cities, parts of Des Moines suffer from hunger, homelessness and disinvestment. While Downtown thrives, attention must also be paid to those areas of the city that continue to seek investment and jobs. As rents rise across the city, particular attention needs to be paid to the construction of safe, affordable housing.
You wear many hats. What are one or two projects on which you are currently working that you are most excited?
Just this week, the City of Des Moines, Urban Land Institute (ULI) Iowa, and the Greater Des Moines Partnership kicked off a yearlong mobility study of the expanded Downtown core of Des Moines in an effort to make it more bike and pedestrian friendly. If we can make the public right-of-way truly inviting for all users, private investment will follow. Rather than focus on how to get cars in and out of downtown as quickly as possible, we’re working to create safe, vibrant streets that attract activity and commerce.
As a member of the committee that helped to develop Des Moines 2040 comprehensive plan, we’re now turing our attention to the a new zoning code. Often overlooked, a zoning code is an essential tool in how cities take their shape. Des Moines is looking at incorporating form-based code in its new zoning code, which would allow for a much greater mix of uses and walkable urban form than is currently allowed in many parts of the city.
What’s your advice for the next generation of city change makers?
Get involved and ask for advice. The great thing about being young is you don’t know what others have said is not possible. It’s often those who don’t know where the accepted boundaries are that make the greatest changes.
There is never a shortage of work to be done. Find an issue you are passionate about and throw yourself into solving it. Join boards and committees and volunteer for tasks when others may stay silent. Don’t be afraid to be told no when you introduce new ideas. In fact, if you aren’t being told no then you aren’t pushing hard enough.
What should we know about the your work that you haven’t yet mentioned because we didn’t ask the right question?
I am a former small business owner and developer. I was a partner in the redevelopment of a mixed-use block near Drake University, owned a coffee shop, and have owned and restored many historic homes, including four saved from demolition and moved to new locations. I make a mean cup of coffee.
Finally, could you tell us something about yourself than most of your colleagues don’t know about you?
Here’s two interesting facts about me that most of my colleagues don’t know about. I lived in Russia in the early 90s and saw firsthand the tremendous changes the country was going through. The many difficulities Russia faces today are strongly connected to the trauma its people lived through in the 1990s in what could best be described as a Wild West economy that produced social upheaval.
And I was a DJ in college. Tapes of my shows are hidden forever in the bottom of a shoebox in my closet.
About the City Changemaker
Larry James Jr. is counsel in the real estate practice of Faegre Baker Daniels. He focuses on transactional real estate law, including platting, sales and leasing transactions, and planning and zoning. He works closely with developers on land development as well as redevelopment transactions.
In addition to his law practice, Larry owned a development company that coordinated a major mixed-use redevelopment project. He oversaw historic restoration of numerous houses, including several moved to new locations; negotiated rezoning and site planning with municipalities; and successfully obtained Federal Historic Tax Credits and State Historic Tax Credits for projects.