Mass Ave Fire Station Redevelopment Reaction

The proposed structure to replace the Fire Station on Massachusetts Avenue has garnered a lot of divergent opinions, even within Urban Indy’s group of bloggers.  I thought that it would be a good idea to post these opinions out and let the readers decide on how they feel about it.  First, the renderings and site plan:

Graeme Sharpe:

Imagine a walk through a city famous for its streetscapes, such as New York or Paris. Obviously, in these places there is plenty of iconic architecture – but how many stand out as great, lasting achievements worthy of international acclaim? Probably less than 1% of all buildings, right? And so it is with any city, because average looking buildings are a mathematical certainty. Great cities need normal buildings. In fact, the race for iconic design at any cost doomed many of our original buildings 50 years ago, resulting in a city full of melody but missing a rhythm. The problem with downtown Indy isn’t that we are missing iconic structures, it’s that we are missing normal ones. We need infill projects, and this one stands on its own as a good infill project.

Another thing that great cities do well is focus on people instead of buildings. As long as the proper aspects of urban design are present, the buildings themselves are secondary to the human drama that plays out on our streets. The beauty of the design is largely unimportant. Consider how these spaces are used: whether it is a group of friends walking to lunch or a young professional going to their first day of work – it would take an exceptionally ugly building to degrade those experiences. This project has the elements that will create the needed urban experience: hidden parking, mixed-uses, permeable and transparent storefronts, a dense footprint, articulations that break up the massing, interesting colors and materials that allow for design expression, and a bold corner that creates a sense of place. Indy will be a better city because of this project.

Curt Ailes:

While some people may be quick to point out the negative qualities of the Mass Ave Fire Dept development, I want to take a moment to point out the positive. First this development will be a generous boost to density in the area providing a guiding example of what future downtown developers should be shooting for in terms of residential density. Next, it will serve to activate an entire block in the middle of one of downtown’s most thriving districts bringing together both ends of the Avenue. Furthermore, providing commercial space for this influx of residents will be key. Existing business owners may bristle at this, but more people will be travelling the avenue by foot. Additionally, immediately adjacent to the Murat will provide some special event options for commercial vendors in enticing them across New Jersey street. Next, the design of the parking leaves nothing to be desired. The majority of it will be located underneath of the development freeing up land for more valuable uses. Finally, the addition of a large digital screen will serve to activate this area beyond the ground floor. Providing a beacon for those further down the alley will be pivotal to establishing this new development as a gathering area and further promoting arts in one of Indy’s premier arts districts. While this development does’t raise the bar significantly from an architectural point of view, it surely does not lower it. In short, I like it!

Kevin Kastner:

I feel quite mixed about this development.  It might be awesome, it might be tacky.  If nothing else, it is bold.   I fear that it could spell the end of the independent and locally-centered phase of Mass Ave and signal a more corporate-flavored influx.  Which I think is a shame, even if it is inevitable.   Save for Dean Johnson and a host of design firms, Mass Ave probably hasn’t been the hub of the city’s visual arts scene for at least 5 years, so perhaps that fear is overblown.  I do think I like the design of the Blackline proposal better, which can be viewed here.  However, despite my dislike of the architecture, what really matters is what Graeme mentioned when he referred to permeability and street activity, which this proposal appears to address.

Joe Smoker:
It seems like a huge building, and I’m kind of nervous about it being a mega block of trendy blah.   As usual, I’m upset about the parking subsidy.  However, I think this project is supportable, but it is very middle of the road for indy. Shocking to see the overhang roofs, thats unique.

Chris Corr:

My first reaction to the design was definitely leaning negative, but it’s growing on me.  If you look at the elevation below the siteplan, there is a TON of glass in the facade.  Even though the color grabs your attention, glass is by far the dominant exterior material.  You really don’t get a sense of that from the angled renderings.   I also like that the ground level retail wraps around the points and includes about a half block of New Jersey and North.

Kirsten Eamon-Shine:

I’m largely fine with the function of it, even if it’s not my dream of urban design for the city. BUT I hate the design – it reminds me of that 4th Street Live in Louisville, which is incredibly depressing to me. To me, it’s worse than the cruise ship, because it’s so gaudy. But maybe that’s just the mock-up. Things always look different when executed and I’m hoping it will turn out less LOOK AT ME I AM HERE FROM THE 1990S!

Eric McAfee:

I’m not crazy about the design either, especially if it’s as bad as people say from the eastern vantage point.  And a four-story LED sign devoted to overhyping Mass Ave seems to project Midwestern insecurity at not being East Coast.  Blech.  But I have no doubt the local NIMBYs will put the kibbosh on that one.However, if it’s any consolation, bear in mind that the “trendy” look is just a reflection of where a certain architectural style falls in the hierarchy of taste culture.  It’s not that different from fashion.  Something that is stylish now will inevitably seem painfully dated in 10 years, but then will be likably vintage in 20.  Even brutalism has its advocates these days, despite the fact that virtually every brutalist structure is anti-urban.  I’ve never been to 4th Street in Louisville, but it will probably fall out of favor soon too, if it hasn’t already (whether the retail will survive is another concern altogether).  Most artistic movements ebb and flow like that.  Isn’t grunge in the midst of a mini-comeback?Lots of people are probably going to gripe about this design, but the faddish quality won’t hurt it in the long run, as long as it’s built to last to that point in time when it becomes “retro”.

Comments 32

  • I don’t necessarily disagree with the range of opinions the project and certainly don’t think that were it built as is it would be a complete blemish on the area. That being said a few points bear mention: 1) First and foremost, the digital sign is entirely inappropriate and should be excised from the project. I believe these types of lighted signs are prohibited by both the Regional Center Guidelines and the historic preservation plan and for good reason. I don’t just see this element as inappropriate but I think it would denigrate the character of the area (and I know that the designers have assured that it will never be used for advertising but I am not dumb enough to actually believe that). 2) I think the programming of use in the development was a total failure. Yes, it is mixed commercial and residential, but this is basically the same as the entire surrounding area to it fails to bring any diversity of use. The nature of this site would have easily supported office, hotel and other commercial or institutional uses. Bringing more new or under represented uses would have made the area a significantly more dynamic area. 3) Sure the project with increase density, but the context of the site with much taller structures in the immediate ares (The Davlan, Riley Towers, Barton Towers, etc.) would have supported at least a portion of the project to be taller than 5 stories. 4) The design lacks cohesion. The seemingly purposeless mash-up of designs, colors and materials results in the development having a total lack of cohesion. I might even go further to say the the varying mix of styles and materials actually mocks the context of Mass Ave rather than pays homage to it. I think the project, as is, has a lot of positive elements, but when taxpayers are pitching in significant amounts I think it’s acceptable to demand something better than just “normal buildings”. Ultimately I think that all of these criticism are just symptoms that originate from a single problem, lack of vision.

  • “Focus on people instead of buildings”. I think that is where this structure fails. It is BORING at street level because it is just 500 feet of sameness. Joe Smoker hit it: trendy blah. At ground level, not much different than Wellpoint on the Circle, or Chase Tower on Ohio.
    Think about how seldom you ever “experience” the whole front of an urban building from the elevation viewpoint, and how much more often you experience it at ground level, walking by.Take a look at the rendering, ignoring the screen and bright colors above: all the same doors and windows, all the same awnings, very little relief in the streetwall to allow for sheltered dining, etc.
    (There are several ways to do sidewalk dining/storefront restaurants and cafes. In Broad Ripple, and in one or two places on Mass Ave, it is common to have a retractable storefront that brings the outside in, as opposed to colonizing a chunk of sidewalk to take the inside out. Other places such as downtown Columbus IN feature the old-fashoned in-set retail entrances that draw a pedestrian in and provides “feature windows” for cafes/restaurants to feature a couple of “see and be seen” tables or a bar or whatever. This corporate slab-front doesn’t lend itself to anything other than colonizing sidewalk.)

  • For the life of me I can’t understand why everyone is so critical about this project on mass ave? I love the project that’s going in at the old fire station site (my personal thought is that it would be better around the eight to ten story mark but budgets are budgets). The screen is the best part of it all to me, it creates a new dynamic for the area in so far as it is going to create a unique and artistic light that lets everybody know who’s not from the area, especially tourists, that this is indeed a lively place to be and experience in Indianapolis. Plus realistically what kind of world class architecture do expect for 43 million dollars when you have a whole block to redevelop, I don’t intend to be bashing your opinions I just respectfully disagree with your thoughts. I’m pumped that this is going to transform the area by one adding more retail to the area to make it even better by more restaurants, boutique’s, bars, and people ultimately adding to a more dense urban environment. Then all the new taxes the city is going to be able to collect from the businesses in retail portion, property tax, the taxes the property owner has to pay, and the Income tax from all the residents that live there and it creates new jobs (even if they are close to minimum wage). Having the ability to go from collecting nothing or next to nothing in taxes to a full blown neighborhood bleeding new money for the city is nothing but positive. The whole look of the building isn’t bad the colors are a great gimmick for a younger CLIENTELE! (sorry for yelling its just the headline of my train of thought) that this building is targeting because whether you like it or not, older people don’t hang out till the early morning like people in their 20’s to mid 30’s do even if it is only because of family obligations or responsible experience. I’m not saying that this younger group is better its just if you noted the layout of the building you would notice that the majority of the apartments are 1 bedroom or studio residences. It creates an on the go environment to amplify the already vibrant street in the stretch that divides the two sides of the strip. In my opinion we need to focus more on complimenting our existing standout neighborhoods like Mass ave or FS or BR with medium size mix-use infill like this, you have to crawl before you walk and density is step one. More people creates more demand which creates larger scale projects so if these developments work out guess whats coming next? That’s right condo towers on near by streets where stand out pieces of architecture come in because budgets are much higher and reputations/pride are on the line. I guess to summarize my general feelings on all the harsh critics is stop complaining about design and celebrate the fact of all demand for downtown living, things are happening for us to be proud of and its only going to be a matter of time before the transit comes and brings a completely different dynamic to the city that’s inevitably going to add to the demand and investment of downtown Indy. Cheers to the future!

  • I’ve gone back in forth on whether I like the screen or not. I think it could be a good idea, but I’m not sure that Mass Ave is the appropriate place for it. I think if Indy were going to try that anywhere, (for art, videos, or music) Georgia Street would be the place to do it. I feel like maybe they could set up a “Time Square” look alike type deal with some kind of development at Pan Am Plaza. I’m kind of seeing a small Younge and Dundas Square area if anyone has been to Toronto.

    As far as the Mass Ave property goes, I’d like the development more if it was in the 10 story range, but other than that it seems fairly solid.

  • The biggest problem is that it is one super long monotonous building at street level. Rather than drone on about it, I’ll just say “ditto” to Chris Barnett’s comments.

  • Let’s give credit where it’s due in terms of the time and effort that went in to each proposal. It would be nice to see the others since a winner has been chosen. Now, I want to say, JC Hart was one of the pioneers who did the Waverly. Tight space, a little suburban, but it fits in with the surroundings and it is quality.

    I agree w IndyIndie, the Piccadilly Circus sign needs to go, and it does scream out, us Indianapolis people need some iconic LED crap to feel secure. We don’t; maybe the designer feels that way. I hope it is removed at IHPC hearings.

    They could have pulled a light tower, or water tower, etc from one of the surrounding properties. How much more Mass can you get than to insert a little bit of the Temple into the design while inserting modern design as well? My hope is that a 40,000 SF Whole Foods goes here; outdoor seating, classes, etc. This won’t be the final painting by any means, and I hope it gets more of a Mass Ave feel and not a trashy, commercial feel. Best to the team and best to all who will have input. Now just move the Fire Station…

  • I also agree with Chris Barnett, especially with the lack of appropriate scale at the commercial base. Way too monotonous and boring. Buildings along Mass Ave. should not feel corporate. I’m not opposed to large screens, however the placement on the PRIME corner is not appropriate. Why not design for humans with views in mind? I think my biggest disappointment with not only this proposal but the wrapping around Barton tower is the lack of imagination with design integration…when considering existing structures and context. The anti-urban brutalist structure (which I find appealing, adding to the eclectic feel of Mass Ave.) should be viewed as an opportunity. Why not transform the Barton tower with an 8 story modern structure with various levels. Instead, Indy designers propose a safe, monotonous residence that would feel right at home in Fischers or Carmel. The 400 & 500 blocks are the center of this diverse & historic district. Forget the regulations and NIMBYs which keep this place from developing naturally!

    • YES! I think when we had a discussion on this board about the development around the base of the Barton, I said my vision there was all exposed concrete, aluminum and glass. No red brick. No wood doors. No quaint projecting signs. Bring the Barton Tower down and out to street level and celebrate it!

  • I agree with Graeme’s comment the most. As others have noted, public taste changes frequently, so I am not too concerned about this design as long as it’s build to last with the high quality materials. I don’t want to get into public subsidy, or is TIF good or bad. That aside, I like this infill project. Kevin talked about the end of independent and locally-centered Mass. It really is inevitable (think Soho). But it really is a sign of progress. Independent and local will move elsewhere (think FS). There are other smaller lots on Mass ready to be redeveloped and one bigger one (old Coke plant). I also hope Mass would better connect to the downtown. It is kind of cut off by Delaware. That corner needs to be redesigned and redeveloped with infills.

  • OMG that is hideous

  • Thanks for this post. Graeme’s description best summarizes how I will feel about this proposal, once the LED sign is removed. Until then, give me the firehouse and credit union.

  • Mass ave is the appropriate location for the screen, a art district. If they were to place the screen in the whole sale district Indy would be mocked by everyone for trying to imitate Times Square. Bringing density and excitement to Mass Ave will be a major plus for the city. We need more options in Indy for our guest and ourselves as well.

  • I don’t mind the project, but like the Blackline one better. I just think it makes sense to have a hotel in the project along with residential and commercial. The hotel would truely bring visitors to this rich cultural area.

  • I think its pretty close to perfect, I actually kinda love it.

  • I think the building has good base characteristics… I personally think it makes more sense to allow the tenant, the right and duty to modify their own facade…. You cant come in and develop a building like its going to have a bank here… a yogurt peddler here… an art gallery on that corner… That all seems more sterile and absent than allowing spaces to be naturally inhabited, and tailored for the individual commercial need.

    The screen is my favorite component by far though. I think they need to render a video, and do it well, in order to assure and show people whats up with that… Indy’s streets are orange, with that boring street light glow at night. It could use some bright lights like this to liven things up.

  • As I pointed out on IBJ, look through the Property Lines archives for the last two or so years. Look at current and proposed projects. There’s a common theme – obligatory cantilevered roofs, extruded rectangular facade sections (ahh, the wonders of Sketchup) and balconies between the extrusions. I don’t see much creativity. Our design bar has been set so low, that we are happy with mediocrity. One day people will look back and say, “oh that’s from the 2010 era”.

    @JP – We have had a slew of 3 to 5 story, stick-built multi-family projects. Hardly high-quality. Look at what this architect did at 300 Mass. Ave. – an entire facade of EIFS.

    Take a look at what’s happening in comparable cities. It’s eye-opening.

    • I’m not a construction expert, so when I said “as long as it is build to last”, that’s me stating my main criteria and hope that’s the way it turns out. Again, I’m going back to Greame’s main point, even in most beautiful cities in the world, 99% of the buildings are ordinary. I don’t think this design is bad. It is much better than 300 Mass. It is not original – I agree that it looks like many other recent developments….pretty ordinary. This development checks off many items on my wish list: infill, high density, mixed use, mostly underground parking. If you go back to every post about any Indy residential or mixed use development on this blog or IBJ’s property lines, you will always see large number of people generally not liking it. Tough audience. And I mean I care about architecture and if it is build to last. When I was buying my house, my first criteria was it had to be limestone or brick. It had to have some character, before i even looked at the number of beds, etc. So it is not that I’m not picky, but some of you guys can’t see forest for the trees.

  • All I can say is better design and architecture—yes, for the same price as the bad examples of what’s proposed—will attract people to live, work and play here. It’s an obvious truth that the majority here in Conservativeville just simply lives with the ‘anything is better than nothing’ standard. The design firms and city officials who shape our landscape could not envision what’s obviously needed for the heart of Mass Ave: a boutique hotel as the centerpiece for not only INDY’S Arts & Theater District but the mixed use development. Wouldn’t a hotel help stabilize business along this corridor? I’m not quite convinced that INDY’S sports/convetion culture could not support such an amenity.

    Blackline Studio proposal made more sense. Schmidt proposal just assumes the public is content with splashy mediocrity.

  • love the digital board..awesome..this will activate the area even more as a destination, which can only help the art district. The district as it stands now, can’t not really pull people in..i.e. Super Bowl failure. I have a huge problem calling Mass a theatre district..where? ToTS?..overall the color, but could use some work on the long facade. Needs to add arch interest.

  • GaryBo: Mass Avenue shouldn’t need destination ploys like a big screen to draw people here. There just needs to be better mixed use development to support: a higher density of residential which sustains the independent businesses which support the people who live there. The boutique hotel shoukd have been the ploy to get a more diverse group of people to visit the area! And would this not keep the neighborhood’s diverse, eclectic character that people are attracted to? Otherwise, Mass Ave. would just become an extension of Downtown’s Convention/Hotel/Mall culture. What’s the point? Hopefully all of this mediocrity will result in better design for the future Coca Cola building/bus lot.

    • Micah: This is a mixed use development. A boutique hotel is a great idea, but is less mixed use than this development. This isn’t a fixed sum pie game. It’s very possible a boutique hotel could be developed along Mass Ave too.

      You argue: “Mass Avenue shouldn’t need destination ploys”, but then say: “The boutique hotel shoukd have been the ploy”. The fact is the city actively promotes Mass Ave District as a destination spot, which helps the independent businesses on the Avenue thrive and makes the city more attractive to people who want to visit and live in “the neighborhood’s diverse, eclectic character “.

      I would argue this development adds more eclectic (heterogeneous) character to Mass Ave. and draws more diversity (people and visually) to the Avenue. Attracting more diversity, more business for small business owners, and more art, feeds the creative neighborhood.

      Mass Ave is not a neighborhood. It’s a commercialized street in Chatham Arch. Chatham is a neighborhood. I think as a neighborhood there needs to be more of a push to strengthen and retain it’s identity.

      As I said in my post, this needs some work to be more appealing. But to attack this concept on grounds it takes away from the eclectic nature of the area, actually serves to keep the street insular and homogeneous.

  • That block of Mass Ave is a bit far from the tourist core of downtown, which is all south of Washington. It’s a mile from the Mall entrance, a mile and a quarter from the Convention Center and outside the skywalk bubble. Make no mistake, what drives downtown hotels is the convention and visitor business.

  • A boutique hotel would serve a small, specific clientele…which is not the herd.

  • I’ve always thought the best spot for a boutique hotel would be to convert the old Center Township assessors office along Mass Ave into a nice eight story hotel. It is right across from the Coca Cola plant. They could turn that area (the Coca Cola site) into an interesting mix of local shops, outlet stores, restaurants and other fun businesses perhaps – and then have an 80 room hotel with a cool first floor restaurant out there. That would be a perfect place for visitors to stay that wanted to enjoy a weekend in downtown Indy – enjoying the mix of stores, restaurants, theaters, bars, etc in the Mass Ave area — and also be able to easily get around to all of the other things downtown offers. Its right on the Cultural Trail too. Maybe that could be discussed as the plans for the re-do of the Coca Cola bottling site start moving forward.

  • I agree with a lot of what is being said in here. While it’s great to see infill development along Mass Ave. – this building leaves little to feel great about. One of the biggest problems is the color scheme/material choice; it screams ‘trying too hard.’ This is generic at best – it could pass as any town center development in any suburb in this country. What is contemporary about this? How is this representative of now? Take a look at this new building going up a few blocks from where I live in Philly:

    Philly has its own issues regarding infill development, but this project is a home run. These are the types of practices Indy, and other cities, should be striving for and not trying to hit every color of the rainbow.

  • This is a big bold and super cool development for indy and striking at that, the mayor made the right decision on this one, But i personally think this development should and would had looked better fronting east washington across from the cc building and the new 451 market street development, as this street sees more cars and visitors than mass ave. And yes that type of large sign would also be great for the new georgia street which also sees lots of cars and visitors, tony jackson.

  • While the goal to activate this block and turn it into revenue producing mixed-use is laudable, I’m not entirely convinced that the proposed design achieves this in conjunction with other equally important community aspirations like placemaking and design excellence. I’m in agreement w/ above commenters who decry the video blight of the proposed screen – mediocre design masquerading as placemaking. Signs and screens don’t make the place, people do. The head-in parking along MA is problematic by a) continuing an awkward safety measure – if it has to be maintained, at least implement the back-in angle parking like that on Michigan and b) reducing the possibility for nice wide sidewalks (18’+). Design matters and in this instance, a bland uniform spreadsheet pro forma has dictated the cheapest possible structure to maximize ROI and taken precedence over timeless urban forms that are proven to activate streetlife, incubate small businesses, add incrementally to the “whole” of Mass Ave. and, not incidentally, provide a hefty ROI. With iconic buildings in the area (not just Murat & Athenaeum, but in its own way, Barton Towers & Davlan) this proposal doesn’t add any qualities of timeless urban form. The 3 sided site could have activated all of North St. & NJ in addition to MA by wrapping the parking w/ retail on those sides, too but it fails to seed any street life at that intersection that currently features 2 parking lots & a church. I see no mention whatsoever of LEED characteristics. Any structure receiving public funds should result in a high-performance structure. I offer a couple of links to further the discussion of Municipal Placemaking by Nathan Norris: &
    (The link to the “Net Attraction Network” video in the first URL offers valuable insights into the conversation of how urban design affects property values especially the notion of “cost” vs. “value.”) Right now the City seems to be in the mindset that all development is good (meaning, it generates property tax revenues, creates construction/design jobs and -eventually- adds to Net Assessed Value.) As true as that may be, other qualities like placemaking and design excellence are not accorded sufficient respect.

  • Thanks Tom for the insight. I think you really summed it up. It’s a sad truth but you stated it: Indy believes ANY development is good…regardless the lack of design. It’s just sad that crap will be built on such prime real estate. Like I say…if this was proposed for IUPUI or the canal, then perfect…I can live with that. But this location? What’s even more sad is anyone passionate enough to respond against bad design on this blog will probably give up with the comments and forget this monstrosity will actually be built with little revision down the road. I guess Fountain Sq. is the place to be.

  • Well, that halo has got to equate to ‘smart & green’. Or maybe it’s the beginning of mayor Ballard’s China Town he’s been dreaming to build (note: Gregory Ballard sighted at Disneyland with Schmidt for the past 36 months….)

    ….Doing what? That’s for you to imagine.

  • To my eye the form overwhelms function. Unfortunately it’s ugly. Since it is November, I’ll be positive and be thankful that the Barton Towers will spare my it from my stepmother’s view from the Glove Factory.

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