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Redevelopment plans threaten Gasoline Alley

Area businesses object to Grande Avenue closure

February 2, 2009

Business owners along the fabled Gasoline Alley north of Rockville Road think a proposal to close a north-south road linking them to the front door of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have devastating effects.

Allison Transmission and The Speedway Redevelopment Commission are seeking the vacation of a 1,354-foot section of Grande Avenue, just south of West 10th Street. Allison has plants on both sides of Grande Avenue.

The road closure is part of a larger plan forwarded by the redevelopment commission last year, which includes revitalizing the areas immediately south and west of the track and along Main Street in Speedway. The Grande Avenue hearings could set the tone for the entire project, which includes several more radical proposals, including vacating parts of 16th Street and Georgetown Road immediately surrounding the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for future development.

The redevelopment commission's executive director, Scott Harris, said the larger redevelopment plan is gaining speed. The commission recently hired a designer for portions of the project and bought land along Main Street. Harris hopes to break ground on significant portions of the project by year's end. Those could include enhancements to roads, sidewalks and lighting in the Main Street district and pedestrian malls along 16th Street and Georgetown Road surrounding the Speedway.

Gasoline Alley, which is the site of numerous motorsports-related businesses, is less than a mile south of the proposed Grande Avenue closure. The closure is set to be heard by the Plat Committee of the Metropolitan Development Commission Feb. 11. If there are objections to the proposal—and that is highly likely—it will be heard by the full commission, likely in March. If the MDC approves the proposal, remonstrators could sue to stop the vacation.

The Feb. 11 meeting is important because the five-member Plat Committee will attach a recommendation to the proposal, and that is likely to carry some weight with the MDC. John Bartholomew, spokesman for the MDC, said Platt Committee members are prohibited by state law from commenting on the proposal before the hearing.

Marilyn Pfisterer, the City-County councilor who represents Speedway, said she believes the closure would only "inconvenience people in that area slightly. I do understand some businesspeople feel it will impede access to their business."

Remonstrators—which include local residents as well as Gasoline Alley businesses—have not been shy about voicing their concerns. Officials for Allison and the redevelopment commission have met with them several times. The objections have not been quelled.

'Life and death'

"This is life and death down here for a lot of these businesses," said Charlie Patterson, who owns seven commercial buildings along Gasoline Alley. "If they cut off our direct access to 16th Street, that will really do some serious damage."

Patterson, who led the movement to get the name of the road changed from Roena Street to Gasoline Alley in the early 1980s, said the road closure hurts two ways.

"It causes businesses on the Alley to reroute when we need to get to that area of 16th Street surrounding the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and it hurts us when we're trying to get clients here from the Speedway," Patterson said. "Access to that area is vital to us, absolutely vital. I can't stress that enough."

If the closure is approved, Gasoline Alley traffic trying to get to 16th Street near the IMS will be forced to go northwest on Cossell Road to 10th Street, then back east to either Main Street or Polco Street.

Many of the Gasoline Alley businesses are either small race teams, racing-parts makers or other industrial shops. Many of the biggest race teams used to be housed along the stretch of road before migration began to the Park 100 area on the northwest side of the city in the 1990s, and more recently to Brownsburg. There are a few retailers along the stretch of road that depend on drive-by traffic.

Rosemary Chadd, office manager of Arizona Sport Shirts, said walk-up business is important to the company, which sells silk-screened T-shirts and other racing and sports paraphernalia.

"Shutting off access from Grande Avenue would hurt our exposure," Chadd said. "One of the reasons this company located here was proximity to the Speedway area."

Area business owners said the biggest drop in business would come during race times.

"My concern is, how much pain is this going to cost us during the month of May and again during the Brickyard 400?" said Mark Meko, owner of Earl's Indy, which makes racing parts for Indy Racing League and NASCAR teams. "It may only cost us five extra minutes for each one-way trip, but we make a lot of trips back and forth to the Speedway during the race season. That time adds up, and anyone in business will tell you, loss of time is a loss of productivity."

Securing the area

Allison officials said the closure is important for safety and security of their plants. Company officials also said it will help them be more efficient by improving the flow of employee traffic between the plants. Allison, which employs 3,300 statewide, makes transmissions and parts for tanks for the U.S. military and its allies at Plant 14 at of Grande Avenue and 10th Street.

"We want to make sure we stay ahead of security requirements," said Allison spokesman Eric Dickerson. "Growing the business for us means bringing in future military business, and making sure we're doing everything we can to meet the Department of Defense's requirements."

Allison's military business is especially important, Dickerson said, because it's stable even during faltering economic times. Defense Department work, Dickerson said, makes up more than 10 percent of the company's revenue.

"We realize this may be an inconvenience, but there are two other north-south routes," Dickerson said.

Already overloaded

Merri Anderson, a longtime resident of the area, which is known as Garden City, said those north-south routes can barely handle their existing traffic volume.

"None of those thoroughfares is four lanes," said Anderson, president of the Greater Garden City Civic Association. "There are five schools in this area, and with the traffic the Allison plants generate, the loss of this stretch of north-south road could have dire consequences."

Anderson isn't buying the security reasons Allison officials are pleading.

"They've done defense work since the 1940s, and now they want to close this street," she said. "As it is, Allison keeps the gates to those plants wide open day and night. Anyone could drive up there."

Dickerson countered that security requirements for all facilities contracting with the Department of Defense have been changing rapidly post-9/11. Federal security guidelines and regulations, he said, continue to become more stringent.

Gasoline Alley business operators think there's another reason the road closure is being sought.

"It's crossed my mind that the same people that want to redevelop the area around the town of Speedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would like to choke this area off," said Don Skiles, owner of Skiles Electric Inc., which has 52 employees at its facility at 286 Gasoline Alley. "I think they want everything that is related to the Speedway to be in the area directly surrounding the town and the track. This historic area could be seen as a distraction."

Patterson said IMS officials fought his original effort to get the stretch of road renamed, but Speedway officials deny that. Patterson said IMS' opposition to Gasoline Alley is due to confusion it may cause with the stretch along the garage area inside the IMS known by the same name.

While closing the stretch of Grande Avenue is on the Speedway Redevelopment Commission's master plan, it is being done primarily for the benefit of Allison, said the redevelopment commission's Harris.

IMS spokesman Ron Green said while Speedway officials support the overall redevelopment plan, they have taken no position on the proposed Grande Avenue closure.

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