East-side businesses fear ‘black hole’ from 10-month I-70 project

The rebuilding of Interstate 70 between downtown and Interstate 465 six miles to the east, starting in February, threatens to devastate a part of town already struggling economically, businesses and community groups warn.

The state plans to close for 10 months the ramps at Rural/Keystone and Emerson Avenue and part of Shadeland Avenue, according to east-side groups that have spoken with planners at the Indiana Department of Transportation.

"If you set out to create an economic black hole on this side of the city, you couldn't come up with a more sure way to do it," said Deanna Garner, president of Garner-Randolph Industries, 5458 E. 10th St.

INDOT acknowledges there will be ramp closures. But officials said they weren't ready to publicly announce details of the estimated $114 million project for a few more days.

"The exact timing [of ramp closures] is still being worked out," said INDOT spokesman Andy Dietrick. "There are three pages of alternative routes" under consideration.

He said INDOT has been talking with numerous business and community groups for more than a year.

Doug Chisholm Sr., owner of Chisholm Lumber Supply Co., attended one of those "hush-hush" INDOT meetings at a church several months ago.

"I told them that [ramp closures] would decrease my sales by 25 percent," said Chisholm, whose 3419 Roosevelt Ave. business is easy to get to from the Rural/Keystone exit–but not via winding city streets in this tired industrial neighborhood.

He figures his suppliers are likely to pass on to him the cost of going out of the way to make deliveries via city streets. Plus, for suppliers and customers, "It could take an extra hour to get in and out," he added. "This could put me out of business."

Implications become clearer

Despite INDOT's efforts to convey its I-70 reconstruction plans, some groups said not until recently did it become clear that key ramps serving the east side would be closed simultaneously, and for so long.

"Please do not feel that you were not paying attention if you did not know this was coming. As of last month, our liaison to the mayor's office did not know any of this, either," states the latest newsletter of the Eastside Community Organization, which represents an area from 10th Street to 21st Street, and from Emerson to Arlington avenues.

The largest employer in that area–Community Hospital East, with 2,800 workers–is bracing for the closure of exits at Emerson Avenue, a main route between the hospital and I-70.

Emergency vehicles will still make their way, via alternative routes, said Mark Dixon, chief operating officer for Community Hospitals of Indiana.

"I'm probably more concerned with patient access."

Indeed, about the time ramps close–in February–the hospital plans to open its $7.5 million cancer treatment center. Community has already spent upward of $40 million in improvements at its east-side campus in recent years.

On the flip side, Dixon said rebuilding I-70 would give the east side a much-needed shot in the arm. He said Community is willing to convene a dialogue between INDOT and neighbors to find more ways to ease the impact. Better communication is one solution, he said, in helping people such as patients become aware of alternate routes.

Dixon also wonders whether the closing of interchanges could be more staggered.

The Eastside Community Organization is holding a meeting Nov. 14 to get more details from INDOT. But the department hired an Indianapolis public relations firm to do the talking, said Scott Armstrong, president of ECO.

It could be a spirited meeting, said Garner, who also serves as project manager for an industrial park near 21st and Emerson. Tenants there "are flabbergasted."

"What INDOT doesn't understand, or doesn't care about, is that people use those exits," she said. "That's what irks me more than anything."

East side dumped on?

The massive project has struck a nerve among east-siders, who've been abandoned by scores of businesses that have closed or moved over the last 30 years. The long list includes a Chrysler parts plant, Western Electric, consumer electronics firm Thomson and numerous big-box retail stores and shopping centers, including Eastgate Consumer Mall.

Residents point to Indianapolis Star coverage last fall announcing the state's plans to rebuild I-70. The story didn't focus on them, but on the hardship for distant Hamilton County and northeastern Marion County commuters from likely traffic jams on I-70 during construction. A state representative from Noblesville and a sales representative from Fishers told sob stories about their coming I-70 commuting woes.

There was no mention of the tens of thousands of residents and businesses between downtown and I-465 who rely on I-70 access.

"You might want to ask yourself a few questions in preparation for the meeting [Nov. 14]. Would Allisonville, Keystone and Meridian on I-465 ever be closed simultaneously for any reason?" Armstrong wrote in the group's most recent newsletter.

"How about Southport Road, County Line Road and Greenwood [exit] on I-65? Is the east side, our neighborhood included, a place [where] people live, work and play or just some land in between two 'good' places where 'important' people drive through?" he said.

"We're flyover country," Armstrong told IBJ.

Justin Ohlemiller, a spokesman for Mayor Bart Peterson, said city officials are working on ways to mitigate the effects of the I-70 project. On streets likely to be used as alternative routes, the city will fine-tune traffic signal timing, add turn lanes, and restripe some streets to add additional lanes.

One of Peterson's pet projects will feel the effects of the I-70 interchange closures. The Keystone Enterprise Park, on the northeast corner of I-70 and Keystone Avenue, has used public funds for worker training and tax abatement. It's touted to have brought 400 jobs into the blighted Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood.

The ramp closures can't but hurt efforts to lease out the rest of the Keystone park, Garner said. Marketing brochures for the 62-acre business park highlight the quick interstate access–key for tenants who ship and receive goods by truck.

Indeed, lumberman Chisholm said he operates out of the enterprise zone largely because of its prime access to I-70 and I-65. "We can get anywhere in 25 minutes now."

There are not many other reasons the Chisholm family firm, which employs nearly 60 people, chooses to stay where it is. For one, Center Township taxes are high. And the location isn't as inviting as for a Lowe's or Home Depot for run-of-the-mill consumers who want to buy just a few pieces of lumber.

"This is an enterprise zone. You're fighting for people to come in here as it is," Chisholm said.

Some of the other economic successes for this part of town also will be affected, including a FedEx ground package terminal nearby.

Armstrong said routing traffic onto city streets could be difficult, after watching a semi-trailer struggle to make a turn on 10th Street recently.

"The idea of basically routing these semis through city streets is incredible to me," said Bill Updike, owner of CMA Supply Equipment, a construction equipment firm at 3201 Roosevelt Ave.

But Dietrick counters that INDOT has put a considerable amount of time into planning for the I-70 project. Besides a three-page list of alternate routes, INDOT is looking at ways the city could tweak traffic-light timing to improve flow on secondary streets. INDOT has received suggestions from numerous businesses over the last year and has worked with emergency responders to ensure those vehicles can find efficient alternate routes.

INDOT has won national accolades for some of its fast-paced projects, notably the 2003 "Hyperfix," the rebuilding of a one-mile stretch of I-65/I-70 just east of downtown. The project took only a few months, though completion there was hastened by shutting off traffic flow entirely–unlike the 2007 "Super 70" I-70 project.

But the 2003 Hyperfix was a mere $34 million, or only about one-third the scope of what INDOT plans for I-70.

Contractors have already begun repaving shoulders along I-70 so they can serve as travel lanes once other portions of the expressway are closed and ripped out. Much of the underlying concrete is fracturing. It is the original poured when the interstate was built in the 1970s.

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