Marina Redevelopment Talking Points

On August 6, 2021, the City Of Des Moines published its 2021 Draft Marina Master Plan Update.  Almost immediately, residents began speaking with me about serious concerns. The proposal very complicated so most residents have had trouble putting their concerns into words. I was asked to create ‘talking points’ to help express these concerns to the City.

If you can only remember one thing…

Here’s your first talking point: It’s hard to create short ‘talking points’ without creating a long ‘explainer’ because the scheme is so complex and there are so many unknowns. But if you can remember only one thing, remember this:

The land side must pay for the water side

Key problems with the proposal

  • The proposal is simply too vague, particularly financing. But despite many gaps and unknowns, the City has already moved ahead. Some of the needed analysis is now occurring but a lot more should have happened and needs to happen before we can acknowledge the risks and benefits.
  • The proposal conflates need with want and does not at all make clear that various aspects are financed independently.
  • The proposal shamelessly includes several “glamor features” to sell the idea, including a passenger ferry, hotel and year-round-market, while failing to acknowledge that their revenue potential is not just unknown but unknowable.
  • The proposal repurposes the Marina towards wealthier boaters and does not consider the possible effects to small boat users or the larger community which uses the Marina Floor as a park.
  • Making the Des Moines Marina Association (DMMA) the only stakeholder in the planning calls into question the City’s management and oversight.
  • For all these reasons, the lack of public outreach is simply grievous.

Ten Takeaways From The Report

Most people kinda/sorta get that the land side has two big features:

  • A Steps project at the end of 223rd (Overlook II) for people to walk down to the Marina Floor.
  • A large multi-level Adaptive Purpose Building (APB) which will replace the boat storage sheds.

The Steps seem universally popular. The APB? Eh, not so much. Regardless, here are ten things to think about.

  1. This is the largest and longest capital project in our history: 15-20 years and $35-50 million. That one sentence should been enough to merit a Town Hall before proceeding with any aspect of the projects.
  2. The land side must pay for the water side. This requires a walk-through:
    • The Marina is a semi-private and self-sustaining business referred to as an Enterprise Fund. The Marina’s own borrowing power is barely enough to start on the first two docks and there will be no more borrowing for the foreseeable future.
    • The City has not discussed borrowing from its General Fund to finance this. The only answer I’ve been able to obtain is that we’re maxing that borrowing out now for the North Bulkhead and the 223rd Steps.
    • There has been no discussion of going to the voters (bonds) to pay for docks replacement. I do not know why.
    • So, every aspect of the land side redevelopment: the APB and any other proposals to be determined (including passenger ferry, boutique hotel, parking, you name it) is the funding source for dock replacement.
    • So the land side needs to generate enough ongoing (structural) revenue to pay that $35-50M bill for dock replacement over that 15-20 year cycle. That is $1.75M – $3M per year. And that is above and beyond any revenue from existing lessees (SR3, CSR, Quarterdeck, etc.)
  3. The proposal has serious gaps. At our September 2 City Council Meeting the Administration will unveil a Request For Proposal (RFQ) to developers. That will be anyone’s first look at what the City is looking for in terms of land side development. It will then be up to whichever developers respond to flesh out a vision for the APB and other projects. But it is important to note that internally, the City must already have a pretty good idea of what it wants the Marina Floor to be like in order to prepare that RFQ. And it is disappointing that they have not shared any of that with the public.
  4. Do not conflate the desires of various self-interests to develop the land side with the need to rebuild the docks or sea walls.
    • The docks and the seawalls (the water side) must be replaced now. There is a years-long process of permitting and planning. No one argues that. If we as a City are committed to having a Marina, we must begin work on the docks now.
    • The docks and the seawalls and land side are all financed separately. (In fact, the City has already received funding to repair the North sea wall. Work on that is already beginning and it has nothing to do with the land side.)
    • There are land side amenities that boaters highly desire (parking, good restrooms, etc.) and the land side should be planned strategically to fully accommodate those needs. But it is only the docks that are in peril. And it is only the docks that depend on land side development to pay for.
  5. The knowable land side revenue generators are not solid:
    • Build a dry stack storage system with 240 spaces into the east side of the hill near the south end of the floor. Presumably, all the small boats displaced by the removal of the current storage sheds will go there. Best case, it generates $1.1M/year in revenue, however operational cost has not been discussed. We are assuming that there will be immediate and 100% demand for that storage.
    • Build a second dry stack storage system with another 240 spaces inside the APB. See above.
    • Move the harbor master’s office into the APB and lease out or redevelop the building for retail/restaurant. Revenue unknown.
  6. The most glamorous revenue generators are unknown and unknowable:
    • Passenger ferry
    • Boutique hotel
    • Move the Farmers Market inside the APB and convert it into a year-round concern

    There’s no way to comment on any of these without more information. They sound wonderful. Who doesn’t like the sound of a ferry or a boutique hotel or a year round market. But there are no numbers. And no discussion as to the impacts on our transportation infrastructure including parking.

    Perhaps the biggest problem with any of these glamour items is that they are being sold as economic drivers. The pitch is that, if we had a ferry or a hotel, regardless of any direct revenue, their presence somehow attracts more visitors, people spending money and general business development. We heard that same argument with the Des Moines Creek Business Park and whatever it’s other virtues, the DMCBP has not been that great economic driver. If people want those things just because they are fun? Great. Sell them like that. But do not include them in the mix of revenue sources for dock replacement.


    • The hotel would likely be instead of that second dry stack system, not in addition to it. So regardless of any glamour, it must perform better than $1.1M/year in tax revenue.
    • The demand for a ferry is based on a private study done by the City in 2019 but only revealed a few months ago. Those results are not exactly echoed by a very thorough study done by the Puget Sound Regional Council where a Des Moines route came in dead last.
    • Although the Farmers Market is a beloved institution, a big money maker it is not. It is fantasy to think that a year-round concern would do any better. And again: every inch of the APB must, above all things, be an efficient money maker.
  7. The public outreach has been terrible.
    • The City’s last real ‘town hall’ about the proposal was in 2017. There was also a Yacht Club event which was far less well attended. But in the end, the total number of residents reached at both these events would have been at best several hundreds. Not exactly representative of the entire community. Also: these were not proposals concerning financing or dock replacement or anything real.. They were at best surveys of public interest on three broad options; nothing more. And to say otherwise is completely disingenuous.
    • The sole outreach about the current plan was by distributing flyers inside the docks to the 750-ish boat owners, 80% of whom are not residents. They were the only stakeholders asked to submit questions and not a single member outside of that community attended the initial planning meetings before the Council voted to move ahead with design. You can verify this for yourself by looking at page 11 of the Draft Proposal or here for a list of all documents reviewed before the City Council voted to move ahead.
  8. The plan plan changes the entire focus of moorage towards larger boats or wealthier tenants and that has far bigger consequences than just the docks. The dream would be to make Des Moines a weekend destination for boat owners similar to the San Juans. And that means that any other developments on the land side will also shift upmarket. Does the community believe in and want that sort of long term vision? There are is a small, but important group of residents who disagree because it is such a change from the original mission. Some boat owners still dearly miss the ‘sling’ removed in 2009. Many resent having to go down to Redondo to launch, which they consider inconvenient and much more challenging to use.
  9. The Marina Floor is smaller than people think. If there is a ferry, dry stack operations, a boutique hotel and retail space in the APB and the harbor master’s office, the logistics will be non-trivial. Some people will use the new Steps on 223rd. But many will need parking or shuttles or ride shares to at least get up to Marine View Drive.  Also, there are many ways to implement dry stack storage and we are considering not one but two systems–which means potentially launching seven times as many boats..
  10. For 99% of Des Moines, the practical function of the Marina is as a public park. It has always been that way. The Marina Floor is the City’s gathering space–and so much so that most people have forgotten that it is, in fact, a business. Thus far, apart from the 223rd Steps, the entire discussion has been around ‘boaters’ and ‘revenue’, ignoring entirely the fact that the Marina is a park and that the vast majority of users will never set foot on the docks.

The ends do not justify the means…

I want to acknowledge that the proposal and every one of its assumptions could turn out to be absolutely wonderful. Really. But at the end of the day, the ends do not justify the means. The issue is not the actual proposal, which could be fixed, but rather the process which was and continues to be fraught.


The City and the Council majority have been completely dismissive of any complaints. The administration denies that there has been any problem with the process. This is not only a failure of government, it is a lack of regard for your intelligence.

  • To insist that there has been anything approaching a proper level of public outreach is to deny reality.
  • Demanding a decent business proposal before proceeding is the very definition of good business.

Three messages to government…

We must send a strong message to our government:

  • The Marina belongs to the entire City. The entire community are the stakeholders and must have a voice at every stage of planning.
  • The City must communicate properly and that includes both high quality information and serious public outreach on programs of this scale.
  • The City must provide complete proposals before asking the City Council to vote and the City Council must not tolerate anything less.

Action Items

To send these messages, I’m asking you to write, not only the City Council, but also to all candidates. Many of the biggest decisions will happen in 2021. So you should be getting specific answers from them now.

  1. Ask them to support of my Marina Redevelopment Presentation ARPA Stimulus Proposal. which will be discussed at our September 16 City Council Meeting.
  2. Ask them to support creating a new Marina Committee of the City Council to provide oversight and planning of Marina and Redondo Zones. This would insure that the entire community had a voice in Marina planning, not merely the DMMA.

1To give you some perspective, SR3 currently pays the City about $450K/year for its piece of the Marina floor.