Government and Media & Marketing and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

Artery severed, but life goes on TOM HARTON Commentary:

May 22, 2006

Jane Jacobs, the noted urbanist, fought a battle in the late 1960s that prevented a freeway from wiping out the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan.

Tom Battista, a local entrepreneur, is fighting-and some would say winning-the battle that becomes necessary when a freeway does wipe out a neighborhood.

When Jacobs died last month she was famous for two things: her book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," written in 1961, which eloquently stated the need for diversity, density and human scale in urban neighborhoods; and for her role in saving lower Manhattan.

The latter happened almost a decade after the book was written. Jacobs and a band of rag-tag neighborhood activists beat the odds and derailed the plans of New York's then-transportation czar, Robert Moses, whose plans for a freeway would have cut wide swaths through SoHo and Greenwich Village.

Indianapolis didn't have a Jane Jacobs when the inner loop was built in the 1960s and 1970s, taking out homes and businesses and severing downtown streets.

But we do have Tom Battista today. With creativity and persistence and the help of like-minded people, Battista, 55, is slowly restoring to the 800 and 900 blocks of Massachusetts Avenue the economic activity that all but ended when the interstate came through.

Suburbanization had already sucked some of the life out of Mass Ave before the inner loop was built. By the time Battista bought his first building in the interstateshortened 900-block in the early 1980s, the surrounding area was a war zone. Indianapolis Public Schools had turned the Art Deco Coca-Cola Bottling Plant into a service center. A few legitimate businesses survived, but seedy bars and their rough clientele ruled after dark.

None of that discouraged Battista, who isn't surprised by the neighborhood's revival.

"This has happened across the country. It's a natural tendency" for people to want to live in cities, said Battista, who doesn't consider himself a visionary.

Visionary or not, what he thought would happen is coming to pass, helped along by hundreds of other investors who believed there was a future for Mass Ave and other areas ravaged by time and modern transportation.

Twenty-plus years later, the cars still whiz by on the interstate that hovers over Battista's Mass Ave beachhead, but the imposing road doesn't seem to matter on this stretch of Mass Ave known as the East End.

Battista and his neighbors in the 800 and 900 blocks have been on a roll. The Drey Building, which Battista and former business partner Jim Blankenbaker bought in 2000, is now full of art galleries, restaurants and other retail tenants. The local independent restaurant R Bistro just signed on for another five years and wine and food store Deano's Vino is about to pop the cork on its new store. Just up the block, Mass Ave Video has settled into new digs. Across the street, Bike Line is open, hoping to capitalize on the nearby Monon Trail as it does in Broad Ripple and Carmel.

But leased retail space isn't all you'll find on the East End of Mass Ave. Battista brings back plenty of the ideas he soaks up while touring the country as stage manager for Jimmy Buffet.

Battista is inviting student artists and not-for-profits to do free screenings of their work on an exterior wall of the building that houses Mass Ave Video. The so-called Media Garden is also hosting themed movie nights every Tuesday. On a recent Tuesday, surf movies were the theme. Next month, movie patrons might be able to stroll across the street to Gelato A-Go-Go, the working name for a gelato shop Battista will open in a converted Airstream trailer if gelato recipes and city approval come through.

He's also president of the board of Indy Fringe, the 10-day theater festival that last August packed downtown theaters just outside Battista's Mass Ave realm. This year's festival will feature 36 theatrical troupes from around the world performing on multiple stages from Aug. 25 to Sept. 3.

For all Battista has accomplished on Mass Ave, two government entities control the East End's future. IPS is reviewing offers from three developers who want to relocate the district's school buses and food service operation from the former Coca-Cola bottling plant. The developers would then redevelop the building and the land that surrounds it with housing and retail. IPS is expected to pick one of the proposals-or decide to stay put-by the middle of June.

Battista has co-existed peacefully with IPS all these years, but he'd like to see the school buses replaced with people and businesses, including a small grocer and an art film house. The same goes for the buildings across the street from the Drey Building that have been owned for years by the Center Township Trustee. Battista knows that the fate of both properties is beyond his control.

In the meantime, he'll keep doing what he seems to do best: Bring people back to a stretch of Mass Ave that was as good as dead when the interstate came through. What's good for people is usually good for business.

Jane Jacobs would be proud.



Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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