Metropolitan Development Commission and Mixed-Use and Proposals and Development/Redevelopment and Zoning and Government & Economic Development and Real Estate & Retail

Developer moving on after failed Crown Hill project

April 2, 2007

They were the ones in suits, with briefcases, sitting up front. The ones who bore the scorn of little old ladies, soccer moms and other community leaders wearing green scarves in protest.

They were the ones who wanted to build homes and a retail center on 71 mostly wooded acres north of Crown Hill Cemetery.

In the eyes of many in the crowd at a rezoning hearing late last month, the developers from locally based Mann Properties were the bad guys. So when the Metropolitan Development Commission denied Mann's request in a 4-3 vote, the crowd erupted in applause.

Meanwhile, Mann's team began the difficult task of figuring out how to regroup, move on and learn from the experience. Developers always consider the risks of losing, but it's never easy. Especially with a project like Mapleton, which would have brought 309 homes and townhouses and a retail strip to land across the street from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The Mann team had spent more than two years refining the project. The company also spent more than a quarter of a million dollars developing the plans, more than it had spent on any previous project. Mapleton would have cost as much as $100 million to build.

"It's emotionally deflating," Mann President Brian Mann said in an interview a few days after the vote. "Everyone here puts our heart and soul into what we do. We never go out and try to do something bad for our community."

Developers don't applaud when they win a rezoning hearing because their work revolves more around business than emotion. Winning is essential. But when they don't?

"Developers figure that's part of the risk of development," said Jeffrey D. Fisher, director of the IU Center for Real Estate Studies. "Hopefully they can make up for it in other projects."

One developer who visited Fisher's classroom was greeted with applause from students but asked them to boo instead--the more customary reception developers get. This year, the number of undergrad real estate majors at IU reached an all-time high of 80 students, despite the challenges developers face. Students know there is money to be made.

Mann Properties had started work on the Mapleton project in March 2005 and put the land under contract in June. The company agreed to buy the land for $5.65 million, a purchase contingent on rezoning approval. Mann does not plan to buy the land now that rezoning has been denied.

The developer met dozens of times with neighborhood groups and organizations such as the IMA and Christian Theological Seminary, touting a site plan that would preserve most of the oldest trees and all but a small sliver of wetlands. The project also would have offered trails in the woods and sidewalks to connect homes with retail, reducing the need for car trips.

Still, residents overwhelmingly stood against the project. The lack of progress frustrated the developers, who later said their opponents could not be swayed to support anything other than a nature preserve.

At IBJ's Real Estate Power Breakfast on March 23, Mann said all landowners should be concerned about how the vote deprives Crown Hill of its property value.

"You have a group of people whose entire case was about preserving what they call a community green space," Mann said. "The reality is Crown Hill is a private property owner."

After the initial disappointment started to wear off, Mann began working on "a serious post-mortem analysis" of all aspects of the development-including the process, presentation and public relations efforts, said Tim Stevens, the company's director of development. The company evaluates every project and hearing, but losses lead to more introspection.

In the case of Crown Hill, Stevens said passionate opponents--including high-profile remonstrators such as Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, City-County Councilman Scott Keller and noted economist Morton Marcus--played a role in the project's downfall.

"People who oppose our developments always have legitimate emotional reasons to do so," Stevens said. "The primary reason is, they just hate to see things change. And that's our business: We go around changing stuff."

The evaluation also includes analyzing the quality of the project itself, which is never easy.

"That's our baby," Stevens said. "We don't want anyone to tell us the baby is ugly."

At least one MDC board member who voted against Mann liked the project.

"I thought what they were bringing was very thoughtful," said Amy Small Bilyeu, who voted against it to give the community "one last chance" to preserve the land instead. Bilyeu, an attorney appointed to the board last year by Mayor Bart Peterson, said the decision was a struggle.

The setback won't cause Mann to change course, Brian Mann said. The company is in business to make money and wants to do it with a high degree of integrity and thoughtfulness.

You can't be in the development business without expecting disappointments from time to time. (The nine-member Metropolitan Development Commission denied about 25 percent of rezoning requests in 2004 and 2005, the most recent years the information was available.)

"Most businesses go through it," Stevens said. "They just do it privately. Our wins are public. Our losses are public."

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