DES MOINES, Iowa — Hardwood floors showing nearly a century of wear and tear creaked underfoot as Tim Rypma walked across the upper story of a musty brick building last week.
He pried open a rusty window lock, pushing it open and letting the midafternoon sunlight stream in. His breath rose like fog as he looked out over Walnut Street.
"You have to be careful with these old windows," he said. "I've seen it before where you open them up, and they just kind of fall out."
Rypma, a local real estate developer known for renovating historic buildings in Des Moines' East Village, has turned his sights to the other end of downtown. He plans to turn the two-story, 20,000-square-foot former tire shop into six apartments, three storefronts and a restaurant.
It's a small project in the scope of downtown's real estate boom, but it signals a growing interest in the west end of Walnut Street.
The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/1nbCPCo ) reports that several real estate projects and new businesses on the easily overlooked section of Walnut have sown the beginning of a revival. Some say it is similar to downtown's biggest redevelopment success story.
"That stretch of Walnut Street could be a really nice microcosm of the East Village," said Zack Mannheimer, former director of the Des Moines Social Club.
Before undergoing massive revitalization in recent years, the now trendy East Village had similar architectural bones.
Lining Walnut Street is a smattering of old one- and two-story commercial buildings, a couple of taller buildings standing four and five stories, and several empty lots that could allow for new construction.
Already, you can find signs of an up-and-coming district:
There are entertainment venues anchoring both ends: Noce, a new jazz club, opened last month near 13th Street, and Exile Brewing Co. stands near 16th Street.
--There is a built-in base of customers and potential tenants: Thousands of people work within a few blocks at Nationwide, Meredith, Wellmark and Methodist Medical Center.
--It has entrenched artists: Fitch Studios, a four-story building that has housed artist studios since the 1980s.
--It has a funky old building turned into housing. Crane Lofts, a former toilet factory, was converted into apartments in 2012.
--A business priced out of a trendier neighborhood has set up shop: FoundThings antiques and collectibles moved to the corner of 15th and Walnut streets after its rent in the East Village went up about 30 percent.
--And there is the potential for new storefronts and late-night venues: Rypma plans for his building to include three 1,500-square-foot retail bays and a 3,500-square-foot restaurant.
"I think this area is ripe for redevelopment and reminds me a lot of what the East Village was 10 years ago," Rypma said.
Further east, the city has been gearing up for a major renovation of Walnut Street. Funded 50/50 by the city and property owners, the project will overhaul the streetscape in an effort to create a pedestrian-friendly corridor attractive to major retailers.
On the west end of Walnut Street, though, there is no overarching plan.
"It is happening more organically," Matt Anderson, assistant city manager, said. "It's just the local development groups coming in and repurposing these buildings."
Real estate professionals view Walnut Street as an extension of the development happening around the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, an area known as the Western Gateway.
Kum & Go owner Kyle Krause is building a $150 million headquarters for his company. He has renovated two other buildings. Mediterranean restaurant Lurra Cocina recently opened in one, and Italian restaurant +39 is slated for the other.
Those venues are expected to pull people to Walnut Street.
Local developer Jake Christensen called west Walnut Street "the next, natural spot" in the Western Gateway.
Christensen, who has experience renovating historic East Village properties, owns Fitch Studios and recently bought the building where FoundThings re-opened. He wants to build a roughly six-story apartment or condo complex at the FoundThings site in about five years.
FoundThings owner Marsha Steele was among the first retailers in the East Village when she opened her store 10 years ago. It was well before the glassy hotels, offices and apartments broke ground.
Steele left last year. Her lease was up, and T-shirt maker 8/7 Central offered to pay her landlord more for the space.
She reopened on west Walnut Street in December, but she knows the stop might be temporary. She may have to move again in a few years to make way for new development.
Steele said her new location gets more "neighborhood traffic" — workers from nearby offices and residents from the Western Gateway and Sherman Hill — than the East Village. There, most costumers were "tourists," shoppers from the suburbs or beyond.
"The energy is really good over here," she said. "This feels like more of a neighborhood than the East Village did."
Once home to a cluster of factories and mechanics, Walnut Street was part of "auto row," a stretch of dealerships and auto shops anchoring the west side of downtown.
While redevelopment seeds have been planted, the area still shows its industrial roots. Merrill Axle & Wheel, Bill's Whitewall Tire Center and Elite Auto Upholstery still operate there.
Plasti-Pak, a printing and packaging outfit, occupies part of Rypma's building. Constructed in two phases between 1928 and 1930, it once housed a publishing office.
Rypma and his partners Paul Cownie and Jeremy Cortright plan to begin renovating the building in April and aim to finish the $4.1 million project by the end of the year.
They plan to strip the exterior paint to reveal the original brick, refinish the hardwood floors and possibly add a restaurant patio and a rooftop deck. They also want to restore a light well running the length of the building. It's Rypma's favorite feature. The glass-covered roof opening will provide natural light to the interiors of the apartments.
The search for those kinds of historical features is what led Rypma to the west end of Walnut Street.
"The challenge with the East Village is these older buildings, now, a lot of them have been redeveloped," he said. "So if you want these quirky, cool, hardwood-floor buildings," you have to look elsewhere.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com