City paves way to redevelop Bush Stadium site

September 17, 2007

Indianapolis has initiated the redevelopment process for Bush Stadium, its shuttered sports landmark.

The Metropolitan Development Commission has hired a pair of local firms for $25,000 to appraise historic Bush Stadium--a first step toward reuse or, more likely, at least partial demolition.

"There's some momentum gathering in that area," said Margaret Lawrence Banning, the Department of Metropolitan Development's administrator for community economic development. "We want to be able to plan for it."

For most of the 20th century, the ballpark was synonymous with Indianapolis baseball. Hank Aaron played there. So did Roger Maris. Its ivy-covered brick outfield wall was the inspiration for Wrigley Field's. When Hollywood filmed "Eight Men Out," 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 there, and Bush Stadium was boarded up.

Nothing but weeds has taken root in the years since. Today, the 76-year-old stadium is owned by the city's parks department and maintained for $1,100 annually.

It could have a high-tech future. The 14.5-acre site sits on West 16th Street within the city's urban Certified Technology Park, which extends through the western part of downtown.

The city can keep up to $5 million in state sales and payroll taxes generated inside the technology park for reuse within its borders. Typically, that money goes toward high-tech infrastructure improvements. So far, the city has spent $1.3 million, so only $3.7 million remains.

"We're not going to be building a lot of stuff with that [money]," Banning said. "That's got to try to leverage private development deals."

It's a prime site for life sciences development, said BioCrossroads CEO David Johnson. He said the area has long been earmarked to be part of a "life sciences corridor," mixing university laboratories, biotech businesses, retail and housing.

The first phase of the corridor's development concentrated on the land at the head of the Central Canal, where Indiana University, Clarian Health Partners and the city swapped parcels and shared planning.

The canal now boasts IU's high-tech business incubator the Emerging Technologies Center and Clarian's Pathology Laboratory, as well as the new IU Fairbanks Hall and Clarian Education and Resource Center.

With that area nearly built out, the focus now should shift to the Bush Stadium corridor, Johnson said. Development in that area could help address the city's shortage of research laboratories or provide space for startup biotech companies, he said.

"The time is now ripe to think about what happens along this broader, more complex corridor," Johnson said. "But how to make it work is a real challenge. Whatever happens out there, there will be a need to build strong community consensus."

The area around the stadium is filled with older industrial and residential buildings, some owned by IU, others privately. Bush Stadium is the largest parcel under the city's complete control.

But Indianapolis likely would face stiff opposition if it simply bulldozed Bush Stadium, given its cultural significance.

The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, for one, has long had an eye on protecting the ballpark, in part because of its Art Deco architectural features. At times, it has listed the stadium among the state's most endangered buildings.

The facility played a key role in the Negro Leagues as the home of the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 1940s. Its cartoon Indian logo and replica outfield teepee were also relics of outdated cultural attitudes.

Mark Dollase, the foundation's vice president of preservation services, would like to see the stadium preserved and turned into an athletic facility.

"Maybe it becomes an outdoor exercise facility for all these businesses' employees to use. I think we have to think creatively," he said.

"To see us throw away a structure that was so important in terms of African-American history ... players really were breaking down barriers when they were performing there. I think it would be an unfortunate loss."

The city has tapped two locally based firms, Burrell Appraisal Services Inc. and Property Analysts Inc., to conduct independent appraisals of the stadium.

Reily Burrell II, owner of Burrell Appraisal, said city representatives have told him that the building's facade may have historic value. He said the city might require a developer to include the stadium facade as part of a new structure, as it did with Circle Centre mall.

"It's a unique property," said Burrell, who has just begun his work. "It's just one of those [where] you don't know what you're getting into until you go through the process."

Banning stressed that the city has not made any decisions about the stadium's future.

"[This is] more like fact-finding," she said. "It's just helping us to understand what that property would be worth if we were to do something with it, as we try to figure out what we do want to do. But we're a long way from there."

Once the city establishes Bush Stadium's market value and irons out redevelopment requirements to account for historic preservation, interest from commercial developers should be high, said Abbe Hohmann, senior vice president for the local office of St. Louis-based Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, a real estate brokerage.

She said the location is attractive partly because it's on the edge of the IUPUI campus.

Though it would be difficult to retrofit Bush Stadium for a new use, she thinks developers would be willing to accommodate a requirement that they preserve some historic features.

"There are lots of things you could do, short of preserving the entire facility," she said. "It'll take some time for the city to reach a conclusion as to how to move forward. But I think it's in the best interest of the overall community that something be done. For the property just to sit there is really not a positive."

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