The Nature Conservancy and The Maxwell

This post is intended to be an antidote to recent pessimism regarding the quality of our city’s infill projects. Two newer buildings on East Ohio Street deserve recognition for their attractive design.

The Nature Conservancy building was not without controversy, as they decided to tear down the existing building, as opposed to renovating it, or building on an empty lot. I was a bit perturbed by this fact, as well as its single-use nature. Regardless, I believe that the end result is one of the more attractive new buildings in the city.

The Maxwell was completed just in time, as the housing market was tumbling. The building provides apartments and first floor retail opportunities for a community that is in need of both. Many urbanists wish that it was located a bit closer to downtown, in place of other single-use condominiums. While I agree with this, it’s better to have it on East Ohio Street than nowhere.

The Maxwell and Nature Conservancy buildings provide a nice one-two punch of competent design in the Cole-Noble district. They’re both forward-thinking in their own ways: The Maxwell is a mixed-use mid-rise designed for renters; and the Nature Conservancy is aiming for LEED-certification. Indianapolis can get it right.

Comments 15

  • These are both good examples of what local developers can look to when it comes to comparing “junk” development. Both of these offer a more progressive thinking when it comes to building out the downtown lots. I think that the Maxwell could have offered some more design flair, but its not bad either. I consider it a win. The Nature Conservancy is obviously a great project for it’s intended purpose.

    • The Maxwell has some nice subtle design features that don’t come across in photos. I believe the stone underneath the sign in this picture is actually marble. I like that they utilize touches of art deco, without being too cloying about it.

  • Design lesson from the Maxwell (really from Frank Lloyd Wright): pre-cast concrete structures can be attractive when properly detailed. The designer really did a good job of incorporating art deco touches: the aluminum streamlining, extra window detailing, the small inset grilles, the capitals at the top of the parapet.

  • I think the Nature Conservancy project is a step backwards.

    They’ve essentially plopped down a suburban office building in the middle of downtown Indy. Aesthetically, it’s fine, but Its planning and orientation prohibit further development of the site in a way which could improve its density. If every commercial site in downtown Indy were to be developed in a similar way, we’d probably not be posting on an “Urban Indy” website as an “Urban Indy” would not exist.

    We need more density, not less.

  • Totally disagree. While we do need more density, the idea that a single-use structure is not compatible with urbanism is not true. This is a reactionary position to the overly single-use suburbs.

    We need more residential density, no question. So, good for the Maxwell that it houses bodies. I could do without the theme park nature of the apartments and condos of this area, but it is nice to have more bodies.

    The first step in having more first floor retail in this city is not to just put it everywhere – its to actually have people living here to shop at these places. There are a ton of empty storefronts all over this city. We need more people living downtown to make these viable.

  • Thanks for the comments. TNC might not have the most urban land-use, but it does front the street, so I think that makes it not suburban, at least in the traditional Indianapolis sense. I think Josh makes a good point we won’t be able to sustain street level retail everywhere without a larger urban population.

  • Josh is right…urban retail in Indianapolis needs to be concentrated in nodes, not spread out with a little in every building. This means “mixed use” doesn’t need to be implemented in each building as long as a block or easily-walkable several-block area has a variety of uses.

  • Totally agree with you all about the ‘node development’ for Indianapolis’ future growth as a livable urban environment. What will make Indy unique in the future: not to try and copy the traditional, high density footprints of larger cities. It just won’t work. I would love to propose a map of ‘village nodes’ within 465 for Indianapolis as a planning tool. The land is vacant and cheap enough to think progressively about this. But Indy would have to invest in an even more progressive transit plan to complement.

  • I assume the retail you mention has to do with the Maxwell as I don’t have a problem with a single use building either, but if the single use isn’t dense enough, it shouldn’t preclude more intensive use, which TNC does. The location of the geothermal wells on the site prohibits its further development in place of an inefficient parking lot.

    Density is density, whether residential, office, retail or other commercial use. We need more of all of it in downtown Indy. Dense use makes urban land more productive and energy efficient. Node concepts like Chicago work because critical density allows it to work.

    Energy and time are wasted commuting, and a critical mass of dense use makes mass transit practical and desirable. Buildings like TNC dilute the capacity for density and further erode the possibility of effective mass transit. Sprawl, even on the small scale demonstrated on the Nature Conservancy site, forces additional time and energy use for those around it.

  • Eric, most of the time, none of us would argue with those points. We all “get it”. But as this site is more of a special demonstration, I dont mind seeing it at all. Perhaps down the road, the site could be reconfigured to allow more effective use of the land. If they followed the CBD design guidelines, the building, and land, shouldnt be too difficult to reconfigure and all the materials would likely be reused. Yeah, that is years off if even conceivable but as I said, I will give them a pass for now

    • I agree. The pursuit of density at any cost will make our cities just as unlivable as the urban renewalists dream of auto-mobility for everyone. Density is an important thing, but it’s not the only thing.

      • If nothing else, I would say that the benefit of Indianapolis is that we have a little bit of everything, and I would say that diversity is a major strength to build on. And that means a variety of density — there will always be suburbs, it’s just a question of how heavily we lean on them to hold the city up.
        For where TNC is located, it’s always going to be in a relatively low-demand area, thanks to I-65 acting as a moat. I’d also say that the pure density makes a bit of sense, what with its proximity to the Lockerbie neighborhood.

  • I’m not after the pursuit of density at any cost. I’d just like them to set a good example when they do it.

    I think in this case they pursued LEED at any cost and this particular project has been cited nationally as an example where the LEED requirements have distorted sustainability goals. The buildings that were torn down for the project offered greater potential use of the site than what has been built. They also represented embodied energy which has been lost.

    I agree that it is likely to be a long time before the density pressures will be here to fully occupy a site like TNC’s. I just hate to see that project held out as a good example of what to do when it has gotten the little things right, but missed the big ones. If many businesses downtown were to follow its macro examples, we’d be in real trouble.

    I used to look out my window and watch a cooper build some incredible copper work. I now see a parking lot and some silly walls built from a few bricks left over from what had been a handsome warehouse on the site. I know what’s there is trendy and cool, but I’ll be surprised if it has the staying power of what was torn down in its place.

    TNC is a great neighbor, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I’d prefer to have even more neighbors than just them. I bet the pizza place on Market Street would, too.

    • I agree with you, if every company were to use this same level of density it would definitely hurt the long term ability of Indianapolis as an urban place. But open spaces do play an important role in city livability, and we should embrace the projects that make open spaces worthwhile. TNC’s property excels in this respect.

      Also, a structural survey of the existing building was performed with the intention of reusing it. I have not read it, but I have been told that the engineers found it was structurally unsound and would not be habitable without a rebuild. Since the structure was not deemed historically significant, the decision was made to build a new one that reused portions of the older building rather than build a recreated warehouse structure.

      In a perfect world, TNC might have satisfied all of their requirements and kept the old structure in place, but in the real world that would have been an unwise use of funds for a non-profit company.

  • I am familiar with the structural issues the previous building had and they were not unusual for a building of its age, nor were they insurmountable or particularly costly to address. A creative architect could have used them as a point of departure for the renovation. Harvard University achieved LEED platinum for renovating a very similar building adjacent to their campus.
    I agree that open spaces are important as well, but disagree that TNC’s excels in this regard. Yes, it helps with water filtration and runoff, but isn’t any more useful than similar suburban office plots. It’s much less useful than the smaller plot on Mass Avenue outside Starbuck’s and Elements.

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