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Plans for Central State's rebirth taking shape: Mixed-use 150-acre project vast in scope, challenging

August 13, 2007

Touring the expansive grounds of the former Central State Hospital west of downtown is like taking a trip back in time-evident by the crumbling buildings that are as dated as the site's original Hospital for the Insane name.

But a redevelopment in the final stages of city approval could breathe new life into a 150-acre parcel surrounded by blighted neighborhoods to the east and north and Hispanic storefronts to the south along West Washington Street.

The proposal features a mix of singlefamily homes and commercial space, as well as a cultural center that could integrate salvageable buildings into the scenery. The Indiana Medical History Museum would remain an anchor by tying future development to the property's history.

City review of the land-use plan should be finished within the next 60 days, and dirt could be turning in the spring, said local developers Mike Higbee and Charles Garcia.

In May 2006, the city chose High Mark LLC, a development team of Higbee, president of Development Concepts Inc., and Garcia, president of Garcia Construction Group, to redevelop the site.

The partners are purchasing the property from the city for nearly $1.7 million and have been conducting market analysis and studies of underground debris. They admit the project will be a challenge but are confident the area is ripe for revitalization.

'Tough' conditions

"The conditions are pretty tough," said Higbee, who is currently developing Martindale on the Monon, a single-housing development in the historic Martindale-Brightwood community near downtown. "We have our work cut out for us. This is not a home run by any means."

Indeed, Clint Fultz, a principal of Indianapolis-based Prime-Site Brokers who redeveloped parts of another struggling area, Lafayette Square, questioned whether apartments might be a better option than single-family homes. Yet, he thinks the project has potential.

"I've got to believe that they're savvy enough and that they have a raw product that gives them enough options that they surely can come up with a model that works," he said. "It's not that great of an area, but where can you get that much green land that is all contiguous and that you can really put some planning into?"

High Mark won the city bid for that very reason-by taking a holistic approach to plotting the parcel by creating a neighborhood rather than cutting it into separate sections, as other bidders had intended. In 2005, the city-which purchased the property from the state in 2003 for $400,000-rejected six proposals for redevelopment because they did not match closely enough the desires of neighbors. High hopes

Diane Arnold, 54, is executive director of the Hawthorne Community Center and has resided in the neighborhood for nearly her entire life. She's witnessed West Washington Street's reincarnation into a thriving Hispanic thoroughfare during the past decade and wishes for a residential resurrection as well.

"I hope what happens in Central State will spill over into other neighborhoods," she said. "They can build the Taj Mahal in there, but if people don't take advantage of it, it's not going to help the developer."

High Mark's plans call for between 300 and 400 single-family residences and town homes in the northeastern part of the property that would border existing neighborhoods. Home prices would range between $150,000 and $200,000.

A commercial corridor of office space of up to 200,000 square feet fronting West Washington Street would wrap around an existing fire station and encompass 20 to 30 acres. Vacant dormitories will need to be torn down to accommodate construction.

Existing state veterans housing on the southeastern edge of the property also would need to be demolished, although developers say they would rebuild the accommodations in another area.

Administration renovation

Plans show the cultural center within the heart of the site will incorporate the 35,000-square-foot administration building constructed in 1938 after it is restored for possible use as office space or a boutique hotel. Support buildings that once housed a kitchen, laundry and boiler plant also may be refurbished. A restaurant and community theater would be among the draws to the center.

The former hospital's pathology building, an 1895 structure that houses the medical museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, would remain intact.

Existing soccer fields and green space would serve as recreation areas, along with wooded park space.

The rubble from the original hospital, razed in the early 1960s, is buried, making development on that part of the grounds cost-prohibitive. Tearing down existing buildings, as well as replacing antiquated utility infrastructure, will present the biggest challenges.

The property was appraised at $1.7 million, assuming the land was ready for development. Since it's not, the developers hope to receive a discount from the city for clearing the land.

The project, which could take a decade to complete, has real potential, said Garcia, who became aware of the city's aim to redevelop the property about three years ago.

"There are a lot of unknowns and a lot of challenges involved," he said. "But it has the ability to create jobs and a significant tax base."

Garcia started his construction company, the city's fourth-largest minorityowned business, in 1989 and began doing some residential development under the Wynnewood Development name about six years ago.

He met Higbee, a former city official in the Hudnut administration, through landscape architect Ken Remenschneider and learned the two shared the same philosophy regarding the future of the site. The project is their first as a team but hopefully not the last, they said.

Central State opened in 1848 and housed more than 2,500 patients at its peak in the 1950s. Former Gov. Evan Bayh announced the hospital's closure in 1992.

Following the city's purchase, the 25-member Central State Reuse Advisory Commission was charged with determining the best use for the property.
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