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Crown Hill nearing new deal: About 70 acres expected to sell for $5.2M

May 15, 2006

An announcement on new development for 70 acres of woodlands held by Crown Hill Cemetery and Funeral Home may come within weeks, bringing to a close a controversial land deal that some environmental and neighborhood groups hoped to stall.

Crown Hill leadership is talking with three developers that have submitted competing proposals for mixed-use projects, cemetery President Keith Norwalk said. He declined to name the developers or provide details on their proposals but called an announcement "fairly imminent."

The price of the land, originally listed for $4.7 million, is now in the $5.2 million range, Norwalk said.

All three pitches would preserve wetlands on the grounds, which make up less than 10 percent of the total acreage, cemetery officials say. And the oldest trees, some of which preservationists say date back 200 years, would remain, he said.

The cemetery's board of managers reviewed the proposals but has yet to vote, according to immediate past Chairman Berkley W. Duck III.

"[The proposals] are all, I think, sensitive to our interest in preserving as much of the wetlands and trees as we can and very attractive from a design perspec- tive," Duck said.

Early this year, Carmel-based Brenwick Development Co. announced that it planned to buy the land and build homes, town homes and 40,000 square feet of retail space.

Some neighborhood and environmental groups balked, saying the proposal would wipe out one of the few large remaining green spaces in Indianapolis.

Brenwick withdrew from the deal in late March, saying wetlands and other land features made its proposal unworkable.

"In my opinion, [Brenwick's withdrawal] sent a shock wave through the development community," said Ross Reller, a broker with Indianapolis-based Meridian Real Estate. "It caused some other developers to be very concerned about whether they can make it work."

Reller doesn't know what the developers submitting proposals have in mind, but he said the land is ideal for single-family homes, town homes and condos. He thinks a portion would support 30,000 square feet of retail space.

Crown Hill, which covers more than 550 acres, decided to sell the property after concluding it had ample burial space. The land on the block runs from Michigan Road east to Clarendon Road and from 42nd Street south about a third of the way to 38th Street.

Norwalk said the land doesn't have any roads or trails. The majority is dense woods.

"It's really not grounds that we've ever encouraged visitors to hike or walk through, but it's beautiful to look at," he said.

Proceeds from the land sale would help fund an endowment that is supposed to cover the costs of maintaining the rest of the cemetery.

In the past month, local neighborhood and environmental organizations met, hoping to stave off development.

Crown Hill leaders explored preserving the site, too.

They held talks with Central Indiana Land Trust Inc., a small not-for-profit that pitched a proposal that would have kept most of the woodlands, restored the habitat on some of the land, and eventually included an educational center on urban ecology.

But Crown Hill wanted the trust to submit its proposal by April 24. The group withdrew after concluding it would be unable to assemble financing by that date.

"I was very appreciative about how open they were," trust Executive Director Heather Bacher said. "We had no one tell us [our proposal] was a bad idea, but because of the short time frame, it was difficult."

The trust was especially captivated, Bacher said, by the roughly 30 acres of older trees, some dating back 150 to 200 years.

"It's a neat, special habitat," said Bacher, who hopes to work with the final owner to preserve as much of it as possible.

Some environmental leaders are still optimistic the land could be completely dedicated to preservation.

"I still have some hope that maybe a donor or donors might emerge," said Clarke Kahlo, director of regional advancement and education with the Hoosier Environmental Council.

He said if development plans move forward, they should include "maximum sensitivity" to the environment.

"Otherwise, it's a discouraging prospect," he said.
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