Iâ€™ve covered the evolution of the Chatham Park proposal multiple times on this blog, so it might seem like overkill to feature it yet again. But it isnâ€™t.
Why not? Because it hasnâ€™t gone away. After multiple presentations before the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC), it remains in an ambiguous state, neither approved nor disapproved. The IBJ covers the latest attempt thoroughly. Â And, after the early-April meeting, it remains tabled, awaiting further changes until it meets the IHPCâ€™s standards. In the meantime, we all get to look at the withering old school building, which the developer has allowed the neighborhood to use as an unofficial dog park for the last few years.
The primary entity stymieing its approval remains the same: the Chatham Arch Neighborhood Association (CANA). At this point, this organization is doing a brilliant job of ultimately snuffing the life out of this project by picking away at it, removing key features that contribute to the projectâ€™s density and intensity, little by little. After six months of hearings, the project survives, retaining much of its aesthetic and urban design integrity, but considerably reduced in scale. Here are two renderings of the latest proposal:
Itâ€™s still a fine mixed-use project with a smart design, contemporary but not overly faddish. However, this project cannot survive much longer if the bleeding continues. Death by a thousand cuts. Notice how much smaller its scale is from the original design introduced last fall.Â The developer has cut back on all that he can without completely undermining the proposalâ€™s viabilityâ€¦and profitability. Â His equity partners and lenders cannot tolerate any further dilution of the project because the internal rate of return will not be good enough. And if IHPC subjects Chatham Park to further reductions, the development team will have no choice but to withdraw the proposal. Which is undoubtedly what CANA wants.
Urban Indy strongly supported this project from the start, thanks to its design sensitivity, its ability to target a new demographic, the creative architectural language, the landscaping, the subtlety of the parking, and the mixed-use character. Itâ€™s exactly the sort of infill that Indy needs to continue the momentum of reurbanizing its increasingly vibrant, walkable downtown, along with the density that helps the city restore its tax base, much of which it lost in the second half of the 1900s through suburbanization, middle-class flight/depopulation, and the shift in its sociopolitical culture induced by Unigov.
But Urban Indy is up against a powerfully organized force. CANA has never found a medium-density project that it likes, which explains why this project receives such opposition while a leviathan like this single-family home at East and Walnut streets (just a few blocks south of Chatham Park) gets no opposition whatsoever.
From its website, CANA claims that it, as well as the Chatham Arch Neighborhood Foundation, collectively seek â€œ[t]o promote the preservation of the unique heritage of the area known as Chatham-Arch, an historic residential neighborhood, in Indianapolis, Indiana and to create a total urban environment with respect for the past developed and listed in the National Register of Historic Placesâ€. If the folks at CANA had a genuine interest in the heritage of Chatham Arch, they would have at least questioned the development of a single-family home that spans two parcels and includes a massive garage in the back.
(Yes, thatâ€™s a third garage behind the blue porta-john.) Nothing about a home of these dimensions, with this much cubic footage devoted to vehicles, remotely aligns with â€œa total urban environmentâ€ or the character of the homes that earned Chatham Arch recognition from the NRHP.
But our concern is Chatham Park, which depends on the support of Urban Indy readers, IBJ commenters, and people in the Chatham Arch neighborhood who genuinely seek a vibrant urban setting, which ostensibly is the reason the land in the neighborhood commands such high prices.
The next IHPC meeting is May 3, 2017 at 5:30 pm in the second floor of the City County Building. Be there! Without a visible â€œI supportâ€ presence at this meeting, the IHPC will subject it to further conditions per the directions of CANA, and the deal will collapse. Here are the most essential points that we in Urban Indy have identified:
- True historic preservationists support improved density. CANA claims to respect historic character, but densityâ€”a fundamental aspect of that neighborhoodâ€™s characterâ€”is irrelevant. If it were, the leadership at CANA would advocate restoring the areaâ€™s population to something closer its 1940 peak, when the census tracts around Chatham Arch had 28,000 people. In 2010, they had 8,000. So the area would still have to grow 3.5 times to reach its historic levels. While no one among us ever expects it to return to 1940 (todayâ€™s household sizes are far smaller), weâ€™ll be lucky to approach 50% of historic density if we continue at Canaâ€™s preferred development pattern. And Indy remains in the bottom quartile of major cities in terms of population density. And low density cities suffer a proportionally higher per-person burden to deliver government services. Â Furthermore, the historic character of Chatham Arch includes other high-density apartment buildings, as well as a smattering of retail and industry. Â The only history CANA respects is one of single-family homes with yards, separation of uses, rigid standards for on-street parking…in short, a suburban vision imposed on downtown Indianapolis.
- For those who donâ€™t want â€œthose typesâ€ moving in, they have nothing to fear. Anxiety about low-income populations moving into the proposed Chatham Park development, articulated by some of CANA members, are unfounded. This is market-rate development, and the market is hot. Additionally, itâ€™s going to be owner-occupied, so the chances that, due to future neglect or poor management, the development could eventually downgrade to housing credit voucher programs or low-income, is virtually nil. In fact, as the downtown apartment market shows early signs of cooling, the next best option is owner-occupied housing, which also must pay closer attention to design and quality becauseâ€”not surprisinglyâ€”prospective homebuyers tend to be choosier than renters.
- If not here, then where? So much of the CANA attitude falls under this rubric: â€œIt seems like a good project; we just donâ€™t want it to go right here.â€ Donâ€™t let this mantra seduce you. It has all the trappings of the â€œdrawbridge mentalityâ€â€”of people who rushedÂ into their piece of Eden, but now want to horde it for themselves. If that sounds like a melodramatic descriptor, bear in mind these people are fighting what another person seeks to do with his land. They have no investment stake in this parcel; they are neighbors. And while guarding against potential decline in property value is a rational human behavior, they are fighting investment in landâ€”which overwhelmingly enhances land valuesâ€”versus letting it sit fallow and underutilized, which overwhelmingly reduces it. And, NIMBYs (yes, I used that word) always want to push the investment to someone else. The problem is, precious little of Indianaâ€™s land area has the zoning, infrastructure, or market demand to support medium-intensity development. If this area canâ€™t be urban, what in Indiana ever will be? Regardless of whether you think urban neighborhoods are the key to attracting new professional talent, you can at least recognize that a diverse portfolio is better than a lopsided one. And, for the sake of diversifying our stateâ€™s homeownership offerings, wouldnâ€™t it be savvy to let cities be cities? No developer is gunning to build high-density housing in the hinterlands, yet here we have an interest group forcing rural/suburban development patterns less than a mile away from the absolute center of the stateâ€™s largest city.
- Does the rest of Indianapolis wish to submit to bullying? Again, I know that such a label seems like hyperbole. But the dialogue on our previous blog articles suggests that most outside observers feel thatâ€™s exactly what CANA has been doing. Iâ€™ll concede that we are not an unbiased blog source: we are advocates for good urban development. But then, compare to the Indianapolis Business Journal articlesâ€”a much broader range of views, and more impartialâ€”and the overwhelming majority still favor Chatham Park and refer to CANA as bulliesâ€”particularly a few of the most visible and vocal (i.e., the ones front and center at IHPC meetings). CANA is notorious for not welcoming new members if they don’t share their anti-growth views. Â And while itâ€™s only hearsay, I have strong evidence that one member of CANA actually liked the project; he voted against it simply because he didnâ€™t want to endure the wrath of the most ardent anti-urbanists at CANA, who are his neighbors. CANA is remarkably organized with mission of fiercely supporting their status quo. If they continue to show up as a bloc at IHPC meetings, they deserve to win. But if they win, it only substantiates the notion that organized obstructionists get the upper hand, helping not just CANA in the future, but other neighborhood associations hell-bent on keeping Indy low-density.
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Thus, I can only urge our readers get to work early that day, call a babysitter, wait tillÂ later that night to watch the game. While Iâ€™ll avoid hyperbole this time and say that Chatham Park is not the straw that broke the camelâ€™s back, its failure will likely make it much harder to promote good urban development in downtown Indy for the foreseeable future. Chatham Arch, an attractive but tiny neighborhood that remains a wraith of its former self, should to be something Indy can be proud of. Indy deserves it.
For more details on the proposal, visit the Chatham Park website at MyChathamPark.comÂ . While we encourage all supporters to attend the May 3 meeting at 5:30pm in the City-County Building, a letter of support to the Cityâ€™s Principal Architectural Reviewer will also help, no matter how brief. These letters should go to firstname.lastname@example.org .