Low Rise Proposed for Indiana Avenue

Tom Harton is reporting over at Indianapolis Business Journal that a low-rise office building project is back in the works for the NW quadrant of downtown. The building is proposed for a plot fronting Indiana Ave and Capitol Ave. This land was originally sold by the State of Indiana to Hearthview Residential in 2007 for a 30-unit condominium project with ground floor retail. Hearthview’s plans didn’t pan out and the plot was sold to McGowan Insurance Group in 2008 to be used for office space. Their plans were shelved due to poor economic conditions at the time and they now feel that conditions are better for this sort of project. Here’s what they propose to build:

A rendering of the McGowan office building, facade unknown.

Simply put, this is not appropriate.

Indiana Ave. is an important street. From the OneAmerica Building northwest to at least West St., it can and should be viewed as an urban commercial corridor similar to Mass Ave. The fact that there’s almost nothing there should not be used as an excuse to accept low density development. Instead, the lack of current development should be viewed as an asset — in many ways this area has more potential because there aren’t entrenched interests to keep density low. If anything there’s incentive to keep density high, as there already exists a high density residential base along the canal (approximately 2000 residents), not to mention the obvious proximity to the CBD. The residential density is only projected to become higher with the Cosmopolitan II and a possible apartment project at 9th and the canal on the horizon.

I suggest that any project proposed for Indiana Ave. be viewed as though it were being proposed for Mass Ave. Would a two story building with poor fenestration, boring architecture and a parking lot fronting the street be approved along Mass Ave. today? Certainly not. And it doesn’t belong on Indiana Ave. either.

According to IBJ, the design will be reviewed by the Regional Center Hearing Examiner on April 28th. More details on the design should be available online as we get closer to that date.

Comments 25

  • I saw this pop up on IBJ’s website and had the exact thought. The parking lot fronting the street really threw me off. We have 2 apartment buildings much further northwest, outside the CBD building zero lot line developments and this is all that we can promote for this location? They should just stay in market tower. I think the real issue is that we are granting them a tax abatement for this. tax abatements should be used for reuse of existing buildings or improvements, not this junk.

  • Nice use of brick. Would like to see or cornice or something for the roof line.

  • What’s the problem with the windows? They’ve proposed a lintel and the arrangement is appropriate for the building. Do you have a site plan showing the parking lot in front?

    • I apologize Eric, I haven’t seen a siteplan myself. However, the IBJ article that’s linked in the post states: “McGowan’s parking will front Indiana Avenue to the south of the building and Capitol Avenue east of the building with entrances on both Indiana and Capitol. The plans call for screening the parking with landscaping.”

  • Thanks for writing this. I’ll add a few things.

    This violates the Regional Center 2020 Guidelines land use plan. The recommendation is high density mixed use on this block. This area is part of a developing Canal Neighborhood that has been growing for the past 15 years. The first 10 years saw poor development in several locations along or near the canal that certainly contributed to the snail paced development. It has to stop. A two-story office building next to the CBD is simply insane. I can’t believe someone had the balls to propose this.

    This block is KEY in connecting the Canal and Indiana Avenues to the Central Business District. Downtown’s number one need is more residents and the demand is from educated 20 to 40 year olds. Any plan that does not directly or indirectly increase the number apartments near the CBD is unacceptable. The Cosmo has already laid the blueprint for a wildly successful design. Variation on this should be carried all the way down Indiana Avenue and up Senate Ave.

    In light of the DiRimni DiSaster, might the city learn that crap designs by crap architects and developers have no place in the Regional Center.

  • Like with anything regarding crap designers and crap developers: YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. This project needs to find it’s way home to the suburbs.

  • I would much rather see the mix use condo plan orignal than an office building. You are right though. Indiana Av can be another Mass Ave. And thats a win for everyone as long as it built with affordable medium term parking built in.

  • Define “affordable parking”? Affordable parking can mean $1.25 an hour with a 2 hour limit. It can mean a parking garage under a building. Anything to limit gross proliferation of lots & garages and people circling the lot looking for “cheap” parking

  • I think it is certainly reasonable to refuse the tax abatement (abatements should only go to projects creating significant numbers of new jobs or resulting in a substantial capital investment). Also, the city should require the parking lot be moved to the back of the building, and perhaps request a small retail component on the ground level (if feasible). Beyond that, there should be, and there is, a limit to the conditions of approval the city can impose on the developer.

    If there was money to be made in putting up condos or apartments on that particular plot, then a private developer would do it. Had they simply wanted to put up a small office building from the get-go, they would have gone to the suburbs first since development costs are so much lower and there are plenty of tenants happy to locate in suburban office parks or “new villages.” This is what penciled out for the developer, and the city should simply require that it be privately financed (no taxpayer subsidies) and inviting at the street-level, and nothing more. At the end of the day, Indianapolis is not a major financial market, so there will never be a huge demand for office space, nor does every commercial tenant want to locate in a highrise. The area makes sense for small commercial tenants. As for a residential component, the for-sale market is relatively depressed, and the rental market is being taken care of through various new projects planned or in process. If the developers thought they could make lots of money off apartments on that spot, they would build apartments. A small commercial building with a repositioned parking lot and a small retail/dining component would be fine.

  • Chris,

    If they simply need a two story office space, there are plenty of vacant buildings downtown. Rehab costs could be simliar to new development and they could more than likely find a space with parking on site. The issue is that in a market that is bleeding office space, we are going to allow a development to set the tone for an important downtown corridor that focuses on auto oriented development. The strictest guidelines should be implemented for any new development as long as there is ample vacant office space. We always side with the current market for developers in this city. We make excuses that they can’t do what we would like and something is better than nothing. The truly great cities and great spaces in this country don’t settle. They provide an urban experience and quality of life that attracts businesses and residents alike. If we don’t move forward now, then when will we take the next step? If we make excuses for this developer, what is the incentive for the next to provide a better project? I understand they may not want or need or see a demand for a three, four, five story mixed use project, but again they can locate in an existing building.

    • Joe, I understand your argument; however, Indianapolis is not San Francisco, Seattle, New York, or Chicago. Those cities have natural, cultural and business amenities that Indianapolis will never have. Developers are willing to tolerate higher building costs and more regulation because the developers will still make money since those are very desirable markets for business and residential markets.

      Indianapolis should expect quality projects, but it cannot set the developments standards too high, or developers can and will simply build elsewhere—such as in any one of the surrounding suburbs which have lower taxes, better schools, a highly educated workforce, less crime, etc. I agree there should be no tax abatement, no parking lot in the front, and there should be a requirement for a retail component or some other street-level activation, as well as set guidelines for an attractive facade. But, I don’t think it makes sense for the city to require a developer to put up a 5-story building, when there simply is not the market demand for such a buildlng. Moreover, such as requirement doesn’t make sense or seem fair when the immediate area has historically been a low-rise area and there are empty/underdeveloped lots right in the high-rise downtown core which should be encouraged for higher density development. Yes, I believe the city should insist upon an attractive, quality building, but I do not believe it should pile on the approval conditions, or else the developer will simply say, “Screw you,” and the lot will stay empty for years, not generating any substantial tax revenue.

      I am not arguing that the developer should be permitted to build a crappy building. However, an attractive two (or maybe 3-story) building built with no tax abatement would be perfectly fine. Now, if the developer insists upon getting a tax abatement, or some other subsidy, THEN I think it is quite reasonable for the city to impose much higher conditions for approval since the city is helping to pay for the project.

  • Is there any sort of group of allied business owners or civic leaders who have attempted to organize around Indiana Ave? Something similar to the Mass Ave folks? If there is not a body actively pushing this besides folks like us, then it is going to be really low on the radar. It makes a lot of sense to us to nurture corridors along like this. For instance, there is energy along Indiana from Fall Creek all the way down in some way shape or form. It sort of gets stifled inside of West Street and becomes dead. Would be nice to see the eds & meds side of Indiana connect with the lower-cosmo on the canal portion. With the number of students, its a great opportunity.

  • Unlike downtown condo developements, which showed mixed results (in term of success for developers), the apartment developements have been mostly total success. Sometimes to the surprise of developers (e.g. Cosmopolitan). And that’s normal, developers will often make wrong decisions (e.g Maxwell turned to apartments, 3Mass still half empty, etc). Also, developers don’t have long-term city planning in mind (and that’s not their job). This is where the city has to come in, and define important corridors and what kind of develpment they want to see there. Therefore, I believe our city should have more active role vs. just going with the “market flow”. I am all about more transparency when it comes to the subsidies and behind the scene deals that some local politicans prefer to do. But that does not mean that the local govt. should totally inactive.

  • Scale Fail… plain and simple. JP was right, developers think about the now and not the future. It is the city’s job to make sure this project does not happen. Hopefully the filling apartments and demand for a livable downtown will allow for a larger project to succede within the next 3-5 years. now is not the time to add this. The city is changing in a lot of ways that could benefit this project if they would just sit on it a few years.

  • Chris wrote: “But, I don’t think it makes sense for the city to require a developer to put up a 5-story building, when there simply is not the market demand for such a buildlng”

    There is very high market demand for downtown apartment housing near the CBD, IUPUI, and the Canal.

    • Jeff,

      Much of the demand for apartments is being met with new projects under construction or planned for the area. There is not limitless demand, nor limitless financing for apartment housing. Look, developers are in the business of making money, and if a project penciled out for them, then they would build it. In fact, the original proposal was to put condos on that site, then the market crashed. Once things picked up, do you think the developer didn’t consider apartments? Obviously, it just didn’t make economic sense. Why should the city second-guess someone in the development business? Or, for that matter, why should you? If you think there is money to be made in constructing a 5+ story building on that site, then find some investors, buy the property from the developer, and then apply for a construction loan to build a mid-rise apartment building. Believe it or not, I do not think very highly of developers; however, I do acknowledge that it is very easy to tell others what they should do when it’s not your money at stake.

      Also, there are many parking lots and underdeveloped spaces right in the high-rise district that the city should encourage development on first before it starts insisting on very high density development on the periphery of downtown.

      I support zoning standards, planned development, historic preservation, and development guideliness. However, unless the city is subsidizing a project, I do not believe it should take a heavy hand in dictating what gets built.

      This current project needs work, and the city can and should require some changes (moving the parking lot, improving the facade and entrance, requiring a small retail/restaurant component), but I think there should be a limit to the conditions the city can impose, absent some sort of taxpayer subsidy deal with the developer.

  • Not just there, but also northward. There is significant demand in the area around Methodist, too.

  • I agree with points on both sides. I’ll also say that people tend to idealize cities like Portland and San Francisco. Some of the best parts of Portland don’t have residential units in every single building, not even in former single-family home conversions. Some of the best parts of San Francisco are strictly residential with occasional single-use low-slung retail and dining. Design makes up for a lot of errors.

    I think there are two real issues. First is surface parking – that should be eliminated regardless of location in the CBD. The second is whether people feel this corridor is special because it is one of the original diagonals and would like it to be highly active with retail and residential. If that is desired, it needs to be made clear to developers and adopted into actual plans and then everyone can just have more patience for the area to take longer to develop.

    I totally agree with the issue of incentives. We should not give incentives for things we don’t want to happen.

  • Josh wrote: “[The issue is] whether people feel this cooridor is special…and would like it to be highly active with retail and residential. If that is desired, it needs to be made clear to developers and adopted into actual plans…”
    Regional Center Guidelines for 2020 clearly indicate this block along Indiana Avenue is for high density mixed use projects with similar zoning for adjacent blocks. This proposed project is very low-density and nowhere near what city planners proposed. A compromise would be medium use with much of the use as apartments, because the market demands it and the Regional Center also has goals set for substantial increases in the number of downtown residents.

    My only objection to the Regional Center Guidelines on this block would be blocking a quality medium-density project in favor of holding out for 20 to 30 years for a skyscraper. Medium denisty infill will do more to build the downtown economy and livability standards for the next 20 to 30 years, and can better meet market demands over that time.

  • CHRIS: Market demand for condos is low and very high for quality apartments currently. The availability of financing comes and goes. There is no reason to speculate that the demand for quality apartments near the CBD is going to drop substantially over the next 20 to 30 year life of a loan. You are incorrect to consider the corner of Capitol and New York as the “periphery” of downtown. It is unargueably within short walking distances to the highest concentration of employment in the state, and next to one of the three largest university campuses.

    • Jeff, as the old saying goes, “We are going to have to agree to disagree.” I believe that the city should set certain parameters for development, and then it should be a business decision about what ultimately gets built within those set parameters. I also recognize that guidelines are just that, guidelines, and that they cannot be used to force specific types of development. As I previously wrote, the city can and should require some changes to the proposal to make it an attractive building which positively engages the street, but I do not believe the city should dictate anything more. I also believe that the developer is in business to make money and best understands the development market, so you can speculate all you like about whether apartments would or would not be successful on that site, but I believe if the developer seriously thought that (A) they could make more money constructing apartments than a small commercial space, and (B) they had a reasonably good chance of getting together financing for apartments, then they would construct apartments instead of commercial space.

      If the city wants to engage in centralized urban planning (and I think the city only seems to want to do that when it comes to certain big-ticket development plans by politically connected developers), then the city can foot the bill for it, by offering tax subsidies, etc. I have no problem with the city demanding more of a developer when the city is paying for the “extras.” However, I do think there should be a reasoned policy debate with opportunity for public input about whether the city should be subsidizing private development (absent a guarantee of substantial permanent job creation), especially when so many important city services are currently underfunded.

  • It seems Indiana Avenue will be a much more desirable place to live and work in the near future when: 1) Indy’s LIFE SCIENCE initiative continues to grow and 2) IUPUI becomes more of a residential campus. Indiana Avenue, with it’s proximity to IUPUI and the CBD, should plan for 3-5 story mixed used development for the future.

  • Chris you bring up a good point that, if I may infer, is primarily property owners’ rights to purchase land at market value and build what suits their needs. Then you write, “I believe that the city should set certain parameters for development, and then it should be a business decision about what ultimately gets built within those set parameters.” That is exactly how city planning and private development work. The Regional Center Guidelines set clear PARAMETERS for what is appropriate on the block bound by Capitol, Indiana, and Vermont. The McGowan Inusrance Group’s proposal grossly violates those. Why are you and others confused on this? It is not even close and is not a serious proposal.

    I do think the results of the Regional Center Hearing Examiner on April 28th will be fascinating in addressing current thought on adhering to expert recommendations in the Guidelines vs. superceding those based on property owner rights. Both are important in a city and a democracy; and balance can be hard.

    (BTW — I think this is good PUBLIC debate. The point is to influence third parties.)

    • Jeff, I don’t want to make this into too much of a back-and-forth discussion, but I will add that I am not a “hardcore” property rights advocate. I believe all individual rights, including property rights, have limitations. However, I also believe that the exercise of government authority also has, and should have, limitations, and whether or not a specific power may be exercised under the Constitution or applicable statute does not preclude additional limitations as a matter of public policy. I think Regional Center Guidelines should be applied with great flexiblity, and I think that is where you and I differ in our viewpoints.

      I understand that the Regional Guidelines are parameters; however, they are not absolute limitations, as I think you seem to believe. Deviating from a guideline is not the same as deviating from a zoning law, in which case a variance must be applied for and there is a high burden placed on the petitioner to qualify for the variance. Regional guidelines are not hard and fast rules. If you read the preamble to the Guidelines, then you would see that failiure to meet a specific development guideline will not, in and of itself, result in the denial of a project. I have already stated that I believe the proposal does need to be reworked, but I think the Regional Center Hearing Examiner would be very hard pressed to deny the project simply on the basis that it is not a 5-story apartment building with retail on the ground level. Moreover, if there were such a denial, it would be appealed to the MDC and overturned. If you are hanging your hat on the City acting as a strict enforcer of development guidelines, then you must be new to Indianapolis. That said, I do believe there should be quality construction expected in the city, and I think this project can meet that expectation without being a mid-rise apartment building.

  • Chris wrote: “…but I think the Regional Center Hearing Examiner would be very hard pressed to deny the project simply on the basis that it is not a 5-story apartment building with retail on the ground level. Moreover, if there were such a denial, it would be appealed to the MDC and overturned.”

    It’s unfortunate that this is the most accurate statement you have written. Mediocre design and poor land use is approved and encouraged time and again at the local government level in Indianapolis.

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