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Stadium Lofts apartment project nears opening day

May 4, 2013
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The dirt-shaded concrete installed to preserve the location of the original infield inside the old Bush Stadium provides a stark reminder of the historic building’s colorful past.

But come Aug. 1, the project known as Stadium Lofts will begin a new era for the redeveloped structure on West 16th Street. That’s when the first phase consisting of 138 apartments is slated to open.

focus-lofts-cover-bt-15col.jpg The former Bush Stadium, abandoned by the Indianapolis Indians minor league baseball team in 1996, was used as an auto race track for a short time before the facility went dormant. It is now being converted into apartments. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“We’re going to be busy between now and then,” said John Watson, managing member of Core Redevelopment LLC. “There’s still work to be done, but it’s been a fun project.”

The longtime local apartment developer founded Core in 2009 after a three-year hiatus from the development business. He was so prolific that he had retired three years earlier at the ripe old age of 49. Watson jumped back in the game, counterintuitively, when the economy tanked.

He’s since put his stamp on Senate Manor Apartments, Harding Street Lofts and Chapel Knoll—all market-rate projects.

But the $14 million Stadium Lofts is the most ambitious—if not unusual—redevelopment in Core’s portfolio.

Watson also plans to build the 144-unit Stadium Flats adjacent to the west side of the ballpark and a separate office complex at centerfield in the old park that could stretch to 120,000 square feet.

The cost could total $50 million.

Financing is a mix of public and private investment, including a $5 million contribution from the city to jump-start the project. Watson hopes to secure government financing for the second-phase Stadium Flats through a U.S. Housing and Urban Development loan.

focus-stadium-lofts08-1col.jpg First-floor units feature exposed trusses.(IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

City officials are pleased with the investment in Stadium Lofts, particularly because of its location in 16 Tech, the sweeping redevelopment project the city is promoting as a life sciences and research corridor. The future hub is expected to breathe new life into not only Bush Stadium but an entire swath of the city considered ripe for renewal.

Much of Stadium Lofts’ success could hinge on the city’s ability to get 16 Tech off the ground, said George Tikijian, of apartment brokerage firm Tikijian Associates.

“It’s a cool project, but if that immediate area doesn’t continue to pretty quickly improve, I could see people being uncomfortable living there,” he said. “But I would assume that’s not going to happen since the city is putting a lot behind the 16 Tech area.”

Part of the allure for college students and young professionals alike is that it’s just a seven-minute hike to the IUPUI campus, thanks to a connector trail and bridge across White River. The first phase is already half leased, three months before the scheduled opening.

For Danielle Wagner, the location seems ideal. The 22-year-old radiology student is set to graduate from IUPUI in May. She’s also considering returning to study ultrasound.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” she said during a recent tour of the historic facility. “It’s great that they’re saving it instead of tearing it down.”

Wagner’s visit to the renovated stadium is just one of several walk-throughs that Becky Schulz, the leasing agent for the property, coordinates daily.

Though much work remains before August, including the installation of light fixtures, countertops and drywall in some parts of the stadium, interest is mounting.

“It’s starting to get busier,” Schulz said. “They really like that it’s been reused, and [they like] the newness of it.”

Stadium Lofts is believed to be the first endeavor of its kind in the United States.

Built in 1931, Bush Stadium was synonymous with Indianapolis baseball for most of the 20th century. Hank Aaron played there. So did Roger Maris. Its ivy-covered brick outfield wall was the inspiration for then-Chicago Cubs General Manager Bill Veeck to begin growing ivy on the outfield wall of Wrigley Field in 1937.

focus-stadium-lofts05-15col.jpg Developer John Watson became interested in salvaging the property through his chairmanship of Indiana Landmarks, the historical preservation organization.(IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

When Hollywood filmed “Eight Men Out,” a 1988 movie chronicling the infamous “Black Sox” scandal of 1920, Bush Stadium was the backdrop.

But after the Indianapolis Indians departed in 1996 for Victory Field, the city struggled to find another use. Two years later, a midget auto racing venture failed and the ballpark was boarded up.

Enter Watson. As board chairman of Indiana Landmarks, the Indianapolis-based historic preservation organization, he was approached by the organization’s president, Marsh Davis, to draft a reuse for the crumbling structure to save it from the wrecking ball.

Stadium Lofts was born.

“I can’t believe it stayed and didn’t get torn down,” Watson said in near disbelief.

The 14,500 seats have been removed to make way for three levels of apartments, including 17 units on the ground floor. Monthly rents range from $699 for a 540-square-foot studio to $1,500 for a 1,700-square-foot two-bedroom.

All units feature finished concrete floors, cherry kitchen cabinets, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, and a washer and dryer. Tenants can choose from more than 30 floor plans.

The design retains the outer shell of the art-deco building and includes the look of an actual baseball field in the courtyard.

Roof trusses and portions of its original brick are visible in the first-floor lofts. On the two upper levels, chain-link fencing will surround balconies to advance the baseball vibe. No matter the location, all units are referred to as “sections.”

A glass wall enclosing the north side of the complex provides plenty of lighting for those units. Residents on the eastern end have a clear view of downtown.

The press box behind home plate and above the stadium has been totally rebuilt. But there’s no way to access it, so it serves merely as a façade. The light towers on the roof complement the press box and help to preserve the historic feel.

“It’s a complicated project, but we’re working out the kinks,” Watson said. “It’s a curved building with 1931 construction methods. All the beams weren’t where they were drawn.”

focus-stadiumlofts-rendering-15col.jpg An office building is planned for the center field area of the former ballpark.(Photo courtesy Summit Realty Group)

Inside the courtyard, Watson has paid homage to the stadium’s origins by installing the permanent baseball diamond made with dirt-colored concrete.

Sections of the brick outfield wall are still standing in left and right fields. The old scoreboard in right field, weathered from the elements, is slated to be restored.

The center section of the outfield wall has been removed to accommodate construction of an office building to perhaps house a research- or health-care-related firm interested in locating to 16 Tech.

The L-shaped building will be built to suit once a tenant commits to a lease.

David Johnson, president and CEO of Central Indiana Corporate Partnership and former leader of BioCrossroads, an Indianapolis-based life sciences investment and development group, said a large company locating to the stadium property could do wonders for 16 Tech.

“I think that the 16 Tech idea is right on the money,” Johnson said. “It will be very important for [the city] to find the right anchor tenants.”

FocusRich Forslund, a vice president of Summit Realty Group, is marketing the space and said he’s already fielded a few inquiries. He foresees the building serving as a headquarters rather than as separate offices for smaller tenants.

“Considering we haven’t even [begun] formally marketing it,” Forslund said, “we’re having some good discussions.”

City leaders in June 2011 announced their plan to transform the area northwest of downtown into a magnet for high-tech jobs and life sciences research.

Nearly two years later, the pieces are beginning to fall into place. In April, the City-County Council approved a proposal to allow the city to issue up to $13 million in bonds for street, sidewalk, lighting and other improvements.

That type of support for the area bounding Stadium Flats can only help Watson’s prospects for office development.

Nonetheless, he’s satisfied with his effort that’s gaining national acclaim. He said the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is considering an exhibit promoting the development.•

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