Hotel tower planned by stadium, Lilly campus

July 23, 2007

Steve Alexander moved his architecture firm to West Merrill Street on the south end of downtown in 1995, when blight was high and land values were low.

He figured both would change, eventually. But he had no idea just how drastically.

The company's humble headquarters--two old homes connected in the middle--now sits in one of the city's most desirable areas for development. The Faris Campus of Eli Lilly and Co. is across the street, and Lucas Oil Stadium is rising fast about a block away.

Now, after years of designing banks, churches and condo conversions, Prince/Alexander Architects Inc. is working with unnamed partners on a plan to replace its headquarters with a $47 million, 24-story hotel and condo development called West Merrill Tower.

The plans call for a 200-room full-service hotel and 48 condos atop a street-level restaurant, two-story lobby and seven levels of parking. The design includes blue-tinted windows, granite at the base, and red-brick accents that echo the look of Lucas Oil Stadium. Prince/Alexander is working with the same company that manufactured the stadium's pre-cast panels.

The development team, known as West Merrill Tower Partners, has filed plans with the city for zoning approval and also is seeking a property-tax abatement. No value has been determined for the abatement. A zoning hearing is expected in August.

Alexander said the group has lenders on board and hopes to start construction quickly so it can get a jump on several other hotel projects in the works downtown.

Among them: a complex of hotels anchored by a JW Marriott convention hotel that will add more than 1,300 new rooms, a project by south-side developer J. Greg Allen that would bring a 240-room Le Meridien hotel and a 150-room Aloft hotel to surface parking lots along Pennsylvania Street, and a plan for a 130-room hotel at Meridian and 18th streets pitched by locally based Inner-Urban Homes & Hospitality.

Alexander said he's confident the market will support his project. Others have reservations.

"It's going to take a while to absorb these new rooms," said Rob S. Hunden, president of Chicago-based hotel consultancy Hunden Strategic Partners. "I'm surprised that everyone believes still that more hotels are a smart investment. I think they have to be real careful in the number of rooms and the niche they're trying to serve. Almost every niche is being served at this point."

One advantage is that utilities and other infrastructure are in place for the West Merrill project, thanks to the Lilly campus and stadium construction, Alexander said. And the company already owns the 0.6-acre site, which includes the architects' office, a parking lot and the concrete-block Hinchman Uniforms building.

"It's really kind of a plug-and-play situation," Alexander said. "We'll be the first out of the ground, hopefully."

Alexander would not name his partners on the project. He also declined to name the hotel brand developers hope to snag.

Plans call for a 4,000-square-foot restaurant in the hotel lobby, where a grand staircase will lead to a mezzanine level featuring a cocktail lounge. Top-floor penthouse suites will feature floor-to-ceiling window walls with unobstructed skyline and stadium views. The 10th floor will feature 12-foot ceilings, a pool and fitness facilities.

The developers are asking city planners to waive some requirements for setbacks and building heights and to vacate part of a north-south alley that would run through the project.

Several other hotels are under construction or in the works around Lucas Oil Stadium, which is set to open in time for the 2008 NFL season. But most of them are limited-service, suburban-style hotels by Fishers-based Dora Brothers Hospitality Corp.

The company has a 108-room Holiday Inn Express along Missouri Street, and is building a 112-room Staybridge Suites and a 130-room Comfort Suites along South West Street. It's also planning a 140-room Hotel Indigo along West South Street.

"I'd rather have a smaller hotel that's economically viable and do well with it, and leave open the [possibility of expansion] if it does well," said company co-owner Tim Dora. "That's just the way we operate. We're probably more risk-averse."

Alexander said he's frustrated by all the city's low-rise construction and hopes his 24-story project helps persuade more downtown developers to go vertical.

If the developers pull it off, Prince/Alexander Architects will have to find a new headquarters.

The firm is looking for a blighted area, Alexander said, where "another stadium will be built and a pharma giant will build its headquarters."

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