Commercial Real Estate and Mixed-Use and Urban development and Development/Redevelopment and Real Estate & Retail

Ralston Square project would honor city's first planner

October 8, 2007

A local development team is working on a 10-story, mixed-use tribute to a man who helped design the original plan for Indianapolis, Alexander Ralston.

The $60 million project, dubbed Ralston Square, would feature a 150-room hotel, 55 condos, a 617-space parking garage and 41,000 square feet of retail space.

The modern-looking glass, steel and brick building would replace a block-wide parking lot at the intersection of two streets critical to Ralston's one-mile grid layout of Indianapolis: Meridian and South.

The project would stretch from Meridian to Pennsylvania Street north of South Street, curving with the railroad tracks. Plans call for more than 30,000 square feet of "green roof" space, along with solar shading mesh that would make the building one of the city's most energy-efficient.

The developers are locally based Urban Space Commercial Properties and a local partner, whose name is being kept under wraps. The project architect is locally based Ratio. The team already controls the land and has financing in place to break ground next spring, said Brian Epstein, president of Urban Space. He said the project will take 18 months to build.

Ralston Square could be a milestone for the city in a couple of ways. It would be one of the first new projects to venture south of the psychological barrier created by the railroad tracks, filling in an area surrounded by Conseco Fieldhouse, Lucas Oil Stadium and the corporate campuses of Eli Lilly and Co. and Anthem. It also could be the first midrise project to win Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification for its "green" components.

"If they're successful, it will help stretch development south of Union Station and begin to connect the urban fabric with the new stadium," said Terry Sweeney, director of real estate development for Indianapolis Downtown Inc. "It's a development of urban density, the kind we like to see."

The developers worked to acquire the site from multiple property owners over the last few years and now own all of it. They are not planning to seek city incentives for the project, said Epstein, 36, who founded Urban Space in 1999 after stints at Kosene & Kosene and The Swiss Group.

Epstein's specialty is tenant and landlord representation, but he also has developed small projects. The Ralston Square plan is his most ambitious to date.

The plans do not require any zoning waivers, but the developers still must win support from the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission because of the project's Wholesale District address.

A big asset that could help get the project off the ground is its high number of parking spaces--plenty to accommodate retail, hotel and condo users, said Scott Gray, a principal with Sitehawk Retail Real Estate. In fact, the developers say they'll have spaces left over to offer as monthly rentals.

"The challenge always downtown has been parking," said Gray, who described the project as "cutting-edge and contemporary."

Plans show the ground-floor retail space would be divided into roughly four spaces. The developers are considering several uses, including restaurants, a gym, a small grocery and other neighborhood retail outlets.

The second, third and fourth floors would be parking levels, concealed in large part by architectural features. A hotel would occupy the fifth through eighth floors.

Epstein said he's in discussions with a couple of hotel brands and isn't worried about oversaturation. Several hotel projects are in the works, including a new JW Marriott convention hotel, two hotels at Pennsylvania and Maryland streets, and a handful of others surrounding Lucas Oil Stadium. Epstein is encouraged by stats from Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research that show downtown occupancy remains high, at around 70 percent, and average cost for a night is healthy at around $136.

Spreading the risk across many uses also helps make the project viable.

"We've been very conservative in our numbers on this project," Epstein said. "We're not shooting for a home run. We'd just like to hit a double to the outfield."

Condos will take up the ninth and 10th floors. Units will range in price from $275,000 to $550,000, and an underground parking level will provide 92 spaces for condo owners.

The building would be a step toward completing Ralston's vision for a city within a mile square, said Bill Browne, a principal at Ratio.

Ralston had worked with Elias Fordham on the 1821 grid plan that set up a one-mile square bordered by North, South, East and West streets and bisected by Meridian and Market streets. At the center was Governor's Circle, home to the first governor's mansion, which later was replaced by the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

Ralston had been an apprentice to Pierre L'Enfant when the French architect was planning Washington, D.C. Ralston died in 1827, and several years later his grave was moved to Crown Hill Cemetery, where his marker is engraved with the original plat design for Indianapolis.

Soon, the project on South Street also could honor his legacy, filling in a piece of the dense mile square Ralston had envisioned.

"As you walk around a city, ultimately the more dense it is, the more successful," Browne said. "You need the city to be a 24-hour city. Indianapolis really feels to me that we're getting to that place. As these empty and missing teeth get filled in, it'll just perpetuate the success."

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