Guidelines target design of downtown development: New rules will protect urban character, supporters say

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Downtown developments soon will come under extra scrutiny, once new design guidelines are approved in the spring.

Known as Urban Design Indianapolis, the process of developing the criteria fell on the shoulders of several groups: the Department of Metropolitan Development, Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, Ball State University’s architectural school and the Urban Design Oversight Committee.

The intent is not to mandate to developers that their buildings meet certain design standards, but rather that the cosmetics coalesce with the existing surroundings.

Zoning and building codes are probably enough to prohibit someone from erecting a vinyl-sided condominium next to a historic landmark. Yet the guidelines will provide an additional hoop developers must jump through, just in case.

“There have been some great developments, and some projects that were less than great,” said John Watson, chairman of the Historic Landmarks Foundation and former partner of Van Rooy Properties Corp. “The premise was, let’s keep the bar as high as we can to protect the investment everybody has made.”

After spending nearly three years compiling 100 pages of recommendations, planners will release the draft for a sixweek public-comment period beginning Feb. 19. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Commission most likely would approve the guidelines in April, followed by final consent from the City-County Council.

Rising population

The guidelines sprang from 2004’s Regional Center Plan 2020, a blueprint used to guide downtown development. The priorities include quality downtown housing, public transportation, and cultural and sporting opportunities. City leaders expect the downtown population to double to about 40,000 by 2020.

That plan prompted Reid Williamson, former president of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, to organize the current effort to preserve the downtown character.

City-designated historic districts already receive protection from the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission, a nine-member panel appointed to preserve the fabric of the areas.

While downtown has pockets of historic significance, much remains unprotected. Combine that with the enormous amount of downtown development, and the wide range of urban environments, and building expectations can become confusing. The guidelines are meant to make clear any gray areas within city codes.

“For those who have not had an experience working downtown, this is a step-by-step procedure that allows them to plan in advance and understand things,” said Cornelius “Lee” Alig, chairman of local developer Mansur Real Estate Services.

Guidelines differ among various downtown sectors such as residential, industrial, office and campus, for instance. But the standards cover a wide swath of downtown. The scope spans from Interstate 65 to the east, Interstate 70 to the south, areas past White River to the west and 16th Street to the north, with the exception of the Meridian Street corridor extending to 30th Street.

Obvious to obscure

The recommendations range from the obvious-new development in a historic district shall be compatible with the neighborhood-to the obscure-only deciduous trees are permitted to be planted on public sidewalks.

A few more examples direct hotels on Meridian, Market and Pennsylvania streets, or Capitol Avenue, to construct covered drop-off areas on side streets; and new residential construction containing more than 10 units to provide 40 square feet of outdoor space per unit. The requirement can be waived, however, if a public park is within 250 feet.

The Department of Metropolitan Development thinks the rules will help developers better navigate the approval process, city spokeswoman Anne Coffey said.

Sallie Rowland, co-chairwoman of the Urban Design Oversight Committee and retired interior designer, concurred.

“There’s so much going on that you’d like to be sure that you’re ahead of the situation and provide the guidance to make it better,” she said. “What might be appropriate in one place isn’t in another.”

Indeed, in cases where residential or campus development borders industrial sites, railroads or interstates, the construction of buffers-berms, evergreens or walls-are necessary, the guidelines say.

Opposition unclear

As a developer, Alig said he is unaware of opposition from the development community, but expects some displeasure to follow.

“Obviously, there will be some people who won’t appreciate the process, but at the end of the day, everyone benefits,” he said. “It’s a nice problem to have, if people want to develop downtown.”

The opening of Circle Centre mall in 1995 fueled downtown’s revival. Before it opened, downtown streets were mostly empty at night and on weekends. The success of the mall spurred an explosion of restaurant development on surrounding streets and also created momentum to develop White River State Park and expand the city’s convention business.

New residential projects under way downtown total 1,743 homes and apartments worth more than $365 million, not including IUPUI’s new housing for 800 students, according to Indianapolis Downtown Inc.

The owners of many of those developments now will have the added security of knowing their investment will be protected.

“Somebody is not going to be able to put a project next to you that will lower the property value,” Watson said. “Rather than being adversarial to developers, I think it’s rather helpful.”

While other large cities have similar guidelines, Alig thinks Indianapolis’ stack up favorably and could be used as a model for those who don’t have existing checks and balances.

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