Potential Perils of a Successful Neighborhood

My contact with the Meridian Kessler neighborhood association, Mary Owens, has contacted me about an emerging issue in the neighborhood.   Three times in the last year, citizens have demolished small single family homes in order to construct a larger home on the same lot.  She sent me a an application for another such case, located at 5855 Central Avenue (pdf warning).  Here is a Google Street View of the current house:

This house is not tiny.  Additionally, it is almost a guarantee that it is constructed with better materials than what it would be replaced with.  Here is the rendering and siteplan of the proposed house:

The city planning staff is recommending approval for this application.

It is good to know that people continue to want to raise families in Meridian Kessler.  However, I do think it is a shame to lose these individual links to our city’s history.  Mary Owens is pushing for Meridian Kessler to become a conservation district to offer some protections for the older buildings.  I am curious as to the thoughts of the readers of this blog on this issue.

Comments 49

  • It’s a shame to not only lose links to history, but also the variety of housing sizes and types that gives rise to a more diverse neighborhood.

  • The planned home is very nice looking. I do agree that older homes were constructed with methods and materials far superior to most construction today (at least, the older homes that have lasted this long).

    Is a “conservation” district different than the historic districts regulated by laws regarding all exterior changes? I have to say those particular areas drove us away from protected downtown districts; we chose the old homes on Fall Creek Parkway instead. As I learned about the regs for protected districts I became furious. Energy efficiency is one criteria expressly ruled to be NOT relevant in considering updates. And it’s pretty ridiculous to have to approach a board to get approval to replace rotten siding, or repair decayed masonry, or to pick a paint color, for god’s sake. I’m extremely liberal, but I think that’s just nanny government at its worst.

    I wouldn’t tear down that Meridian Kessler home, but I don’t feel like its government’s place to regulate everything, everywhere. It’s obviously an attractive new home. I kind of dissaprove, but I dissaprove of excessive government oversight more.

    • Robb, I’m with you. I especially question the historic district prohibition on replacing rotten (and sure to rot again) wood siding with modern cement board siding. No vinyl, I get that. But cement board is a high-performance modern alternative.

    • I’m not sure of all the details, but Mary believes that a Conservation District is not as restrictive as a Historic District. This won’t be like the Meridian Street corridor with regards to protection.

      I do think you make some good points about the excessive oversight. There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck to encourage the best practices in the interest of the neighborhood, while appealing to the desires of individual homeowners.

  • The first phase of this started happening 20 years ago in Meridian Kessler: McMansion conversion.
    On the blocks of Penn, Delaware, Washington, and Central with deep-enough lots and within walking distance of Immaculate Heart of Mary (basically about 5300 north to about 6000 on those streets) people added attached rear garages, kitchen extensions, and family rooms with massive master suites above. Basically, folks were turning 1800-2500 square foot homes from the 1920’s-40’s into modern McMansions…without the front-facing three-car garages.
    Until now, the existing homes have been too valuable to do a “teardown”. (Disclaimer: I lived within a block of this site for 20 years). This is because the neighborhood is largely well-maintained and desirable, and when a house gets “stuck” with an older owner who defers maintenance, eventually a new owner surfaces to do a whole-house makeover. I am really surprised that someone would do a teardown there.

  • I honestly can’t say this makes me too upset. I love older homes as much as anyone, but sometimes they just don’t work for the owner and need wholesale changes. I would rather see the house razed and a new home built in its place that fits the character of the neighborhood than see the current home fall into disrepair because it isn’t seen as a valuable property by either the current owner or the market as a whole should they try to sell it instead.

    I would not want to see all of MKNA become an histroic district. I think part of what will help our neighborhood sustain and improve will be in its flexibility, although that probably pertains less to the larger single-family homes on Central and west to Meridian than it does to the College Avenue corridor.

  • I always hate to see an old house torn down in favor of new and shiny when the current house is in good repair but simply doesn’t meet the double-digit bathroom and open floor plan needs of the new owner. I live in one of those great “cookie cutter” neighborhoods where there are 5-6 different designs among 130 homes. No character – but we all have more toilets than residents! My next house will fall in line with what people want to tear down.

    I say learn to live with a few less bathrooms and appreciate the character and history the older house has.

  • Although I grew up in Indianapolis, I now live in Boston, where the teardown phenomenon is rampant. I wouldn’t preserve MK in amber, but the consistency of its urban fabric is pretty remarkable. I have to agree with Richard W’s remark: There’s no reason a house built in 1920 (or even 1820) can’t be livable today. These teardowns seem a lot less like a response to functional shortcomings than an effort to keep up with the Joneses and their supersized houses.

    One other thing to consider: Even a new building assembled with the most energy-efficient materials and techniques begins life with an enormous environmental deficit when built on the ruins of an older structure that could have been saved. The energy, carbon, and waste impacts of demolition and construction are enormous. Renovation of the existing structure, with an addition at the rear if needed, would serve the new owners just as well as a new building—and hurt the environment a lot less.

  • I can certainly identify with these owners that want a more modern home in a great neighborhood. Why should we force upstanding citizens and neighbors to have to move to Carmel because a home built over 100 years ago lacks modern capabilities? If they choose to rebuild a home within the same design and zoning standards as others then so be it.

    After living in a home built over 80 years ago I can certainly understand the desire for bathrooms with space, closets that can actually hold your clothes, plumbing that doesn’t leak, clay sewer pipes that don’t rot, and safe and modern electrical systems without knob and tube wiring.

    I say bring on the innovation and keep building a beautiful Indianapolis! Let’s not restrict development with nanny-state laws to the point where we drive away good neighbors.

  • The forest must burn before new life can emerge. over management will not stop change; it will only inhibit the natural evolution of things.

    The investment required to do a “tear down” project is signigant and will only occur on a limited basis. We are not Vail, CO. Further it will help values for the folks that own nice, older homes that aren’t in disrepair as the subject property is.

    There should be guidlines yes but let’s not get in the way of creative destruction. The house as it stands is a POS. The new home, as long as the architecture is 4 sided looks to be in line with the theme of the neighborhood.

    Additionally, MK has plenty of smaller options to choose. We need to continue to offer all types of housing. Good example would be SWC of 46th and College. Keep the green space bar high but let’s see some affordable housing of a mid-rise size/scope.

    • Wellll.. We end at the same result, but if you think the house as it stands is a “POS” it hardly squares with your “any 4-sided structure fits in with the neighborhood” line.

      • Yeah.
        A house, no matter how “traditional” looking, whose front door and front porch do not face the street is definitely NOT in keeping with the neighborhood. The other “new build” on Central (from the 90’s), in the 5600 block, is similarly a suburban house set sideways with a driveway across its whole “real” front..
        You aren’t going to see that “attractive” facade elevation from anywhere public…only the immediate neighbor sees that. Everyone else is going to see a skinny end. A few older houses on Central are side-loading too, but they have substantial facades facing the street.

      • I was referring to requiring the new home to have same materials/style on all four sides vs going cheap in the back. Also, not a fan of front load garage except where absolutely necessary! this lot has an alley correct?

        • Yes there is an alley in that block, but it is very common to have a front drive on Central that leads to a rear garage. This is mid-block, and the alley isn’t great.

  • I’ve lived in several downtown historic districts and am now in Cottage Home, a conservation district. It’s not nearly as restrictive as a historic district and it seems as if more things can be handled at the staff approval level, but that may just be my perception.

    Here’s how IHPC notes the difference on its website:

    A conservation district differs from a traditional historic district in purpose and administration. The strategies for protecting the significant resources in a historic district focus on preserving historic architecture while a conservation district’s focus is on conserving historic community. A conservation district’s regula­tory protection differs from a traditional historic dis­trict’s regulation. Its primary focus is on overall character rather than architectural components. Conse­quently architectural elements are generally not pro­tected from change to the same degree as in a traditional historic district.


  • I live in the area, and my house was built in 1937. It’s a limestone house. Previous owners added a sunroom in the back roughly 20 years ago (cheaper materials). Detached garage in the back was added at some point as well. The newer structures are in much worse shape than the 75 year old house. That much about modern building.
    I love the neighborhood and since I am on the edge between MK and BR, I appreciate that it’s walking distance to the Village, Canal, etc. But the most amazing thing about this neighborhood is the charm and appeal of these older homes. I didn’t grow up on this continent, so I don’t easily get impressed with Indy’s “historic” districts. However, MK neighborhood is impressive. Almost every home is well built and different. I bought my house about 2 years ago, and I’m still amazed every time I walk around the neighborhood. So, I guess I’m in the camp of “make it work”. You bought an older home, and you can remodel it. But you need to appreciate its appeal and charm, and get used to having less bathroom space or less open space. But then again, I grew up living in a 900 square feet condo with four other people….and that was considered fairly large space for a family of 5 🙂

    • Same goes for our house JP. Our 1925 house is solid as a rock. Our 1970’s era addition in the front? Not so much.

    • I agree with most of what was written. If you are willing to pay and can afford it, you can still get high quality. Unfortunately, everyone’s ability or desire to pay and their taste are not the same.

      It would be helpful to have a review committee help homeowners with suggestions and impact on the neighborhood and surrounding properties. In many cases, people appreciate the help.

      Establishing the minimal building and design standards helps, if this can be done without going “over the top” with requirements and expense as occurs for Meridian Street – e.g. oak Pella windows were not considered adequate quality by the MSPC for a recent Meridian St construction. Pella windows look beautiful and are well constructed.

  • It’s not an easy task to establish even a conservancy district, particularly in an area as large as Meridian Kessler. IHPC currently requires that somewhere near 70% of an area’s population formally agree. It’s been tried in smaller areas of MK, and was met with vocal opposition, primarily out of fear that regulation would be too extensive. Some of that fear generates from the current IHPC process, which begins with the tentative formation of the district, and only then establishes what will be regulated. For MK, if it could be coordinated with IHPC, it would seem more palatable for residents if that process could somehow be reversed, by first establishing a limited basis for proposed regulation, hopefully the result of some neighborhood consensus, that would apply to the formation of the district.
    If it could first be decided that regulation would only be limited to review of demolition of existing properties (subject to some standard proposed by the neighborhood), review of new construction (again subject to a neighborhood devised standard) and perhaps review of major additions (subject to the same sort of standards), it’s a conversation worth having within Meridian Kessler.

  • Just because a home’s old does not mean it’s historic and should be preserved. Maybe some of the MK people should read what’s going on in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles where homes that are truly historic, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Wright apprentices, or others, are being demolished for McMansions.

    • You can just as easily say that a home designed by a “Wright Apprentice” isn’t necessarily “historic” or should be preserved.

  • I’d be concerned with the request for a 1.5-foot north setback and a driveway on the south property line. Apparently the driveway doesn’t require any setback, although I believe that it ought to require a setback unless the two property owners agree to a shared driveway.

    It’s ironic that they are seeking a variance to build the new house wider (north to south) than the lot width would permit, but yet the Central Avenue facade presumably still will not appear to be the architectural front of the house judging from the south facade rendering shown here.

    • http://www.mkna.org/documents/Caskey.pdf
      “The enclosed picture is of a home with the architectural charateristics we plan to contruct. However, the garage located on the right side of the picture will be moved to the rear of the home with the garage doors facing south.”
      I read that to mean that the layout of the home as-pictured would be altered to locate the garage on the rear of the home, rather than simply rotating the home 90* and building it sideways. The front door and more interesting facade would still face the street. The home directly to the south has the same basic layout, actually.

      The driveway being on the property line doesn’t bother me. My driveway touches the property line on the south and my neighbor’s driveway abuts the property line to the north. It doesn’t create any maintenance issues or anything else.

      I do agree that having only a 1.5′ setback on the north side of the lot is problematic. If the neighbor to the north has his/her driveway bordering the southern property line creating at least that little bit of space between the homes it wouldn’t be so bad, but having the two homes so close together wouldn’t exactly be desirable.

      • Look at the site plan.
        Front door, porch slab, and garage door all face south. End of the house faces Central.

        • I don’t think so, Chris… If you look at the side facing central, it even shows the bump out that is on the front of the house from the photo. There would be no reason for that 2′ bump on the side of the home. I believe Adam is correct.

          • I see your point, but the chimney bumps to the “left” in the facade illustration and doesn’t appear on the site plan. Your interpretation would have the chimney on the north side, where there is no corresponding bump. My interpretation would have the chimney form the bump toward Central.
            Since there is no scale to the elevation, Ben, let’s just say that it admits of either interpretation.

          • Chris, it really doesn’t. That bump out is 16.34′ wide, far greater than the width of any chimney you’d realistically see on the house. The drawing simply omits the chimney, which means it would most likely be right on the property line should it protrude from the exterior wall as one would expect it to.

            Like I said below, they really need to scale the size of the home back about 10% and get it into a 34-37′ range in terms of width. That would leave the 10.33′ setback on the south side of the home for the driveway and at at least 5′ on the north side.

          • The section of the house nearest Central is 40 feet on both its south and west sides. Either the south or the west side could be the “primary facade” illustrated.

  • I’ve been to the site and talked to the neighbors. The current house is in poor shape and shows that it never was very well constructed in the first place.

    I agree with the concept of neighborhood preservation. MKNA has not been consistant on preservation issues and has said nothing that either I or the neighbors know of about the proposed plan. The slience is deafening. I cannot see them as preservationists.

    The new house is a structural improvement, but would encroach up to 1.5 feet from the adjoining lot to the north. The house is massive for the size of lot. This could have been designed better to keep a reasonable frontage and not push up against adjoining properties eliminating green space. The neighbor to the north is fighting the variance for the 1.5 foot setback from his property. The new house would block off his living room and dining room windows and impact his ability to sell.

    Elimination of green space and the destruction of a beautiful old tree at the front of the house is a significant change to the historical feel of the property and the neighborhood. The new house belongs on a much larger lot with appropriate trees and shrubs – not on this lot!

    I will be remonstrating at the Board of Zoning Appeals hearing.

    • Ellen, along with the rest of her group (Meridian Kessler Neighbors Helping Neighbors) maintains what’s best described as selective reality. MKNA did hold a zoning review meeting regarding this property, and has been meeting with the neighbors. MKNA has even gone so far as to explore moving the existing structure. MKNA, for years, has been exploring the idea of a conservation district. Deafening silence is often improved by removing the rock from above one’s head.

  • The shape of this lot is very awkward to begin with. Very long and narrow. This maybe from a chicagoan perspective but I dont think a larger foot print is a negative. In fact I think it is better utilization of space. I think instances such as these are not issues to be concerned about unless the house is really worth preserving. In this case, based on the condition of the house, I applaud the reinvestment and I also believe it will add to the curb appeal of the block.

    • Oddly enough, this lot is wider than the 40′ standard for most of Meridian Kessler.
      My objections have mainly to do with setting a “faux MK” Hamilton County suburban house sideways on a city lot with a 1.5 foot setback on one side. That setback is normal for garages in the back corner of a lot, but not for houses adjacent to neighboring homes.
      Marketwise, teardown is fine with me. But if they’re crazy enough to think a teardown will ever earn them a profit, I think their numbers are off.
      Design-wise, they ought to walk down Central (or Washington, or Delaware) to 52nd or so and see how many front-loading houses are built comfortably on 40-50 foot lots. BIG houses, ones that fit in just fine. I have no real issue with lot coverage, as the lot is 1/3 acre (about 14,000 sf.). Even a 3500 sf footprint (1st floor plus 3-car garage) is only 25% lot coverage; around the corner on 58th and over a couple blocks toward Forest Hills, 50% is not unheard of.

  • Ellen, I forgot to mention the loss of the big tree out front as well.

    To Adam: I’m pretty sure the architectural front is going to face south. You can see the little bump out for the fireplace on the west end of the building footprint on the site plan.

    • That bump out also mirrors the front of the home in that rendering. The front door is to the right of that 2′ bump forward. It’s a rough scan, but it’s easiest to see with how the shadow under the soffit juts forward to the left of the front door. If the side of the house is only 1.5′ from the property line, though, that chimney would probably sit right on the property line. I think they need to scale the home down about 10% and get it to be 35-37 feet wide instead of the current 40.67′.

      To Chris –

      There is no porch slab or front door on that sketch. What looks sort of like a porch slab is just the outline of the driveway against the house.

  • Interesting post and comments, and especially interesting to see the “before” and possible “after”. Thanks Kevin.

    The original is a beautiful home and lot … with the curving driveway and trees, there is actually a sense of intrigue and reveal (vs. everything in your face look of the proposal).

    I am surprised, though, to see most if not all the comments centered around size and looks. What about affordability? Isn’t just this McMansion thing that caused property values and home prices to soar (with a public reaction that may be in part cause for library closings?) … with smaller lots and more modest homes in the mix, don’t we allow more flexibility in cost and affordability in communities? What if the “conservation” notion centered more around economics than window trim (and provided tax credits to offset?).

    Correct me if anything is wrong or misguided. The Not So Big House series of books is great and maybe it’s an education movement needed. It’s a culture issue. Still stuck on size. Not quality or character. My son just said “I don’t want them to start Carmelizing the neighborhood.” Great phrase.

    On the other hand, some historic areas strive a little too much toward homogenization (just like Carmel). We also need to promote architectural diversity here in Indy. More modern would look less modern and more normal. Or, just as one or two instances of graffiti look like a mistake and not right on a very large side of a building; but if almost every inch of that same side of the building is taken up with wild, colorful graffiti, it becomes street art.

    Oh, and … what about those trees?!?

  • This is essential if urbanification is to happen in Indy. It’s not a peril, it’s growth.

  • It’s tough to form an opinion either way on this.
    Personally, I feel like the draw of the neighborhood is in it’s old housing stock, mature trees, sidewalks and wide streets. Not ideally what I would design today being so transit based in my philosophy, but part of why this neighborhood is charming is because it has been allowed to develop into it’s current state. It contains many diverse properties and homes. There are stretches with similar homes and then they give way to something completely different, all within the same block at times.
    Getting on board with an old home being torn down is tough. If the old home was of poor construction and really stood no chance of rehab, then maybe it needs to meet the wrecking ball. Mother nature teaches us that nothing is permanent and eventually, everything will need replaced no matter how close to the heart a home or neighborhood may seem.
    And cities evolve chaotically. Perhaps if this new home goes up, it can serve as a reminder of the story of the ugly duckling. I don’t want to see a suburban style home crammed into MK, but maybe it needs to happen to show people what not to do. Kinda like the Di Rimini….

  • For what it’s worth: Almost a century ago, the home at 5855 Central was an art gallery and gift shop called The Arbors, owned by two sisters (surname Hosea) who lived there. I found this in an undated newspaper clipping in the archives at the Indianapolis Public Library and can date it circa 1920–30 because of details it includes about an exhibition of works by the Impressionist Glen Cooper Henshaw (a native of Tipton County).

  • I think this is a great discussion. In fact, it is such a great discussion that I hope it continues over 68 comments so that stinkin BR Ave bike lane conversation off that top spot!

  • Keep cheap housing out, I can agree on that

  • Indiana Landmarks did a study years ago that showed that neighborhoods with historic district designations actually hold their property values better than the same-age neighborhoods without such designations. And, residents vote on whether to have such a designation, and what its regulations will be. Some historic neighborhoods are very strict; others are much more permissive.

  • I have received the building elevations from Mary Owens, and have uploaded them here. The variance won approval yesterday.

    • Okay, I’ll eat crow regarding design. It fits the neighborhood just fine, and looks to be a good design. But I still wouldn’t want to be the north-adjoining neighbor.

  • For whats its worth.

    The rendering of the home does not match the site plan.

    The parking is in front of the home on the rendering and behind the home on the site plan.

    Wonder if anything else is not being presented accurately…..

    • The sketched siteplan shows a driveway moved over from the original spot, but still similar to the existing. The rendering or house picture just looks like a generic house cut out from a magazine to give an example of what it may look like.

  • While attempts at conservation are meritorious, urban built landscapes need – and should evolve – as a function of the filtration cycle, a kind of life cycle of the urban system. The world should not be a historic house museum because of our judgements and projections about the past. The use of design standards and preservaion constrains and zoning would be far more effective, since they might not ensnare a regulating entity and home owner in a battle over taking.

  • I’m not sure what the answer is. I just hope MKNA proceeds with caution. MKNA is great at hosting community forums. Perhaps they should hold a meeting to discuss.

  • Interesting discussion here. Energy efficiency, ‘solar rights’ (i.e., having neighbors not plant trees that block your right to access the sun for solar panels), green building practices will be priorities in the future. I love older homes and many were built better/ with more integrity than current building practices, but I think some older homes do need to go, especially if they have so many structural issues that it is too expensive to preserve (thinking basements here with nasty foundation failures/rotting wood that can cause toxic mold, etc). I will admit that I do not like the huge ‘McMansions’.

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