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Children's Museum holds key to Winona redevelopment

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The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis doesn’t intend to pay for the abandoned Winona Hospital site, but it is playing the role of lead developer.

With the city of Indianapolis about to spend $2.7 million in federal grant money on demolition and environmental cleanup, developers are showing interest in the property at 32nd and Meridian streets. The museum and city are working together to come up with a mixed-use plan that would include housing, some sort of commerce and an outdoor component involving the nearby museum.

“We’ve been very heartened by the city’s openness to the idea of a mixed-use plan,” CEO Jeff Patchen said.

The former hospital site is just north of the museum and has been vacant since 2004. The museum controls 19 acres in the neighborhood, including two parcels adjacent to Winona.

The museum’s interest in the property is no secret. At one time, it envisioned using the whole hospital site for an outdoor extension of its kid-friendly science and cultural experience, but the recession downsized those plans. The museum's endowment shrank by $100 million during the downturn, but it has since rebounded to about $270 million.

“These times call for a different response,” Patchen said.

The city took control of the hospital site last year and has written off about $1 million in tax bills. It requested proposals for redevelopment last February, but no one responded. That opened the door to a no-bid development process.

The Children’s Museum stepped forward more than a year ago, Deputy Mayor Michael Huber said. The city encouraged museum officials to talk to “community stakeholders,” he said, and ultimately agreed to work with the museum in a “leading role as developer.”

At that time, he said, the city was unsure how to pay for the environmental cleanup.

Now, the city and museum are fielding calls from interested developers. Maury Plambeck, the city's director of metropolitan development, said he’s telling developers to talk to the museum, which is also leading the effort to formulate a “quality of life” plan covering six neighborhoods.

Huber said the city and museum have not yet outlined a redevelopment proposal, and the city does not have a formal agreement with the museum.

“We are working with them as a partner,” Huber said. “As long as the property is still owned by the city, I’d like to think we have a significant amount of leverage on what the project’s like.”

In any case, a major redevelopment of the Winona site is likely to require the museum’s cooperation because it owns two key parcels. One is a grass lot north of 33rd Street, and the other has frontage on Meridian in front of the hospital, Patchen said.

For the museum’s own use, Patchen said he’s interested in parking and a sculpture garden, the size of which is up for discussion.

Although Patchen emphasized that the museum doesn’t have the money to buy or lease the Winona site, he said taking ownership is a possibility. “We’d want to focus on a positive use,” he said.

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