Metropolitan Development Commission and Mixed-Use and Urban development and Development/Redevelopment and Zoning and Environment and Real Estate & Retail

Crown Hill development showdown looming

March 19, 2007

On the Web site of Crown Hill Cemetery, in an educational section aimed at schoolchildren, an article called "The Nature of Crown Hill" laments man's alteration of the natural landscape.

Then it offers some advice to visitors of the nation's third-largest private cemetery: "A walk through the cemetery is a good time to pause and realize that the head of man must sometimes restrain the hand of man if we are going to have any places of natural nature left."

The statement seems prescient as debate rages over a developer's plan to buy 71 acres of woods and wetlands on the cemetery's northern edge for a retail-and-residential project--an issue that will come to a head this week when the Metropolitan Development Commission votes on the proposal.

It's shaping up as one of Indianapolis' most contentious land-use battles in years.

The Crown Hill board decided to sell part of its 555 acres in an effort to shore up a fund that will pay for maintaining the cemetery after burial plots sell out. To care for the rest of its land, board members say, the cemetery must give up a piece for development.

Crown Hill CEO Keith Norwalk said the decision to sell the land to locally based Mann Properties for $5.65 million is in line with the cemetery's objectives and the quote on its Web site. The land along 42nd Street between Michigan and Clarendon roads was platted for burial plots several years ago, a use he said would have required the removal of more trees than the development now proposed.

"We believe very seriously in our commitment to the natural environment," Norwalk said. "The opportunity to enjoy the land will increase. It will become viable space for visitors as well as residents."

But many neighborhood groups are fighting the $90 million to $100 million project, which calls for development of three distinct neighborhoods, with a total of 309 upscale homes and town houses and a retail center across the street from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The project, dubbed Mapleton, is scheduled for a March 21 rezoning hearing by the nine-member Metropolitan Development Commission. The commission's recommendation then goes to the City-County Council, which has the final say.

The city's comprehensive plan doesn't take into account the possibility Crown Hill would sell the land, so it labels the area for cemetery use. Planning staff nonetheless has recommended approval of the project.

Dozens of individual residents, neighborhood groups and environmental organizations have written letters in opposition. They include the Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors, Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association and the Crooked Creek Community Council.

The Indiana Interchurch Center and Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis have expressed opposition, and so has the Christian Theological Seminary student council. Even descendants of author Booth Tarkington, who lived in the neighborhood, have taken exception. They demanded a change in the project's name, which initially was called Tarkington.

"We would be happy to have a public woods named for Booth Tarkington, but not a crowded housing development or shopping mall," the family wrote in a letter to the city.

Two institutional neighbors of the property have taken a different stance: They aren't in love with the project but won't try to stop it, either.

Instead, the boards of Indianapolis Museum of Art and Christian Theological Seminary are supporting the right of their brethren at Crown Hill Cemetery to develop the land.

In separate letters, the leaders of IMA and CTS said they "trust an organization of Crown Hill's stature and historical importance has explored every recourse short of sale for commercial purposes." The letters say Crown Hill has an "inherent right" to develop the land.

The boards elected not to take a stand on the project after initially requesting a delay so they could consider a position.

"It's complex because we have people on the board with points of view formed from personal interest," said IMA Director Maxwell Anderson. "It would have been difficult to achieve unanimity."

Indeed, some IMA and CTS board members have overlapping interests that could have made it awkward to take a stance. For instance, CTS board executive committee members John T. Neighbours and David Herzog are partners at Baker & Daniels, a law firm that has done legal work on previous projects for Mann Properties.

CTS board member and architect Jonathan Hess has done work for IMA, and his firm, Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf, is working on the Mapleton development. IMA board member Dan Appel, president of Gregory & Appel Insurance, was on the Crown Hill board when it approved the land sale.

Neighbours said his law firm's past involvement with Mann played no role in the CTS decision, and Hess said through a spokesman that he has avoided involvement with the Mapleton project.

While CTS elected not to oppose the project, the group sent a letter through President Edward L. Wheeler encouraging the city to hold Mann to its promises--for environmental preservation and high-quality design.

"We weren't offended by the Mann proposal," Neighbours said. "We didn't think it conflicted with the purpose of CTS or with our environment."

Mann would preserve as much as one-third of the property, including most of the wetlands and oldest trees, add trails and build rain gardens to treat runoff before it enters wetlands, said Tim Stevens, the company's director of development.

The combination of residential and retail would encourage more pedestrian and less car traffic, he said. The project also would add as much as $70 million to the city's tax base.

"We think it's a model for the right way to develop," Stevens said.

Mann tweaked the plans several times to win more support from the neighborhood. The firm was able to persuade the project's institutional neighbors not to oppose it.

One reason is the IMA and CTS realized the project would stabilize the residential neighborhood and benefit the "long-term viability" of their own institutions, Stevens said. They also had their own interests to look out for.

"Those organizations have done a substantial amount of development on their own real estate," Stevens said. "It might be uncomfortable to them to say to a neighbor, 'Hey, you don't get to.'"

Mann's sales pitch has been less successful with neighborhood groups, which are virtually unanimous in their opposition.

The developer's ongoing lobbying for support led the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association's board to take three separate votes on the project, all of which resulted in resounding no's.

"The development itself is not a healthy addition to the neighborhood," said Gretchen Neubauer, chairwoman of the association's land-use committee. "The neighborhood is strongly opposed."

Neighborhood leaders are worried about flooding issues, and the loss of trees. They don't believe retail will be as successful as Mann claims and are concerned about how a downtrodden housing market will affect that portion of the project. They'd like to see other options explored, for a park or preservation.

Mann's proposal is not the first attempt to develop the land. Carmel-based Brenwick Development Co. withdrew from a deal in March 2006, saying wetlands and other land features made its proposal for homes and retail unworkable. Mann hopes to start construction on the project in 2008 and finish in about four years.

If the project is approved, the land sale will be the second big infusion of cash this year into the cemetery's perpetual care fund. Crown Hill announced in February that locally based Gibraltar Remembrance Services LLC agreed to deposit $15 million in exchange for taking over sales and maintenance of the cemetery and operation of its funeral home.

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