Massive hotel project could advance without city help: Redevelopment would be on a smaller scale

November 6, 2006

Land near Victory Field could get hundreds of additional hotel rooms even if the developers that control the site don't receive city incentives they're seeking for a huge convention hotel project.

Merrillville-based White Lodging Services Corp. and Indianapolis-based REI Real Estate Services are asking the city to invest $45 million to $55 million toward a $250 million campus of hotels on land that's now home to a 235-room Courtyard by Marriott and a TGI Friday's.

If they don't win the city's blessing, the group plans to go forward with a less grandiose plan for the site, White Lodging CEO Bruce W. White said.

White-REI is among three development teams seeking incentives for a convention hotel project. The other two say they'll drop plans if they fail to secure city dollars.

The White-REI proposal calls for a sprawling complex of more than 1,500 rooms in five hotels, including an 800-room JW Marriott and 180-room Renaissance Hotel topped with 24 luxury condos. The plans also include an indoor water park and a three-level underground parking garage with more than 1,200 spaces.

White said the property, which his company has owned since the late 1980s, is too valuable not to do something big.

"We would do a major hotel, without question," White told IBJ. "We didn't buy the site for the Howard Johnson." He was referring to the old brand of the hotel, which property records show was built in 1966.

White and REI proposed a similar redevelopment of the site in 1998, the last time city officials sought proposals for a new convention hotel. That effort led to construction of the 615-room Indianapolis Marriott Downtown on a city-owned parking lot farther east.

Eliminating the underground parking garage could shave $30 million off development costs for the site near Victory Field, REI President Mike Wells said. A scaled-back plan still could add at least 500 rooms, though in fewer hotels.

But the development team is pushing for the more dramatic project, playing up the proposal's potential for connecting White River State Park with the convention center and the rest of downtown.

The partners also are emphasizing their experience-they developed the Marriott Downtown, among other projects-and that they control the site.

"Once we make a deal, the deal will be solid," White said late last month in a pitch to a city-appointed committee charged with picking the best hotel proposal. "We'll come to the trough once."

Another convention hotel option, put forward by a partnership of Indianapolisbased Browning Investments Inc. and Milwaukee-based hotelier Marcus Corp., calls for a $249 million, 44-story Inter-Continental Hotel tower on Pan Am Plaza.

The red-granite and glass tower would include 1,016 rooms, 72 condos, two restaurants and a 36,000-square-foot ballroom.

Browning President Michael Browning has an option to purchase the site from the Indiana Sports Corp. that's good until December 2007. But if the committee selects another proposal, Browning probably would not exercise his purchase option, said Dennis Dye, Browning's executive vice president.

"We're in a different model since we're not already invested in the property," Dye said.

The developers are seeking public help to pay for a 1,384-spot underground parking garage, along with a public plaza, ballroom and sky bridge to the convention center. They declined to say how much money they want.

The third proposal, from White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., calls for adding 650 to 800 rooms within two new wings at the existing Westin Indianapolis downtown. Starwood officials also would not say how much city help they want.

If the committee chooses another proposal, a Westin expansion is unlikely, at least anytime soon, said Mark Purcell, Starwood's vice president for real estate investments.

A Westin expansion in addition to 1,000 new rooms would be "too much, too soon," he said.

The city wants to add at least 800 hotel rooms by 2010 to coincide with the opening of a $275 million convention center expansion.
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