Turf war unfolds in Babe Denny neighborhood

November 5, 2007

A long-neglected neighborhood south of downtown called Babe Denny suddenly is in the spotlight, attracting attention from city planners, code enforcers, land speculators and a politically connected attorney.

The neighborhood, which sits just south of N.K. Hurst Co. and Lucas Oil Stadium, features homes platted in the 1850s, a Baptist church, a park and Indianapolis Welding Supply, the neighborhood's largest property owner and one of the city's most frequently cited code violators.

Much of the hubbub surrounds the welding supply company, which owns more than 45 formerly residential plots it uses to store gas cylinders and semi-trailers. IWS moved its headquarters to McCarty Street in the late 1960s, when Interstate 70 came through.

For years, city officials seemed to support the company's gradual acquisition and demolition of homes in the neighborhood. Babe Denny has been zoned industrial for at least 50 years, and a 1980 plan map recommends the neighborhood's park be rezoned for industrial.

But sentiment has changed in recent years. Plan maps now show mostly high-density residential, with a more contained footprint for IWS. In a rare move, the city in September offered free rezoning to residential for homeowners of the neighborhood. No one has taken the offer yet.

City officials also have stepped up code enforcement, citing IWS 64 times for such violations as industrial storage too far from its main building, industrial storage too close to a park, and paving without permission. The city also filed a case against the company in environmental court.

The company has responded with a far-reaching variance request that would allow it to add shrubs and fences, close alleys and continue to do business. The filing fee was more than $22,000. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 5.

IWS, which, in addition to welding supplies, provides medical-grade gases for hospitals and nursing homes, is represented by J. Murray Clark, a Baker & Daniels attorney who also chairs the Indiana Republican Party.

Clark can't figure out why the city is targeting his client, which he said just wants to conduct business as it has for more than 40 years. He said the city's effort to rezone the neighborhood is unprecedented.

"They've made it very clear they're going to fight us," Clark said. "The way my client is being treated is extraordinary in my view."

The city doesn't see it that way. Over the years, planners have launched similar efforts to rezone parts of Chatham Arch, Fletcher Place and Lockerbie, said Kevin Sifferlen, administrator in the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services. No parcels are rezoned without permission from the landowner.

Sifferlen said code violations are a separate issue. He called IWS "one of the most massive code compliance violators in the city." The company continues to illegally store tanks and trucks with flammable gases and isn't even in compliance with variances it has sought and won over the years, he said.

"Clearly, when you have a 20-year history of thumbing your nose at the zoning code, in addition to receiving dozens of violations and doing absolutely nothing to address them, we're hoping the Metropolitan Development Commission will deny their request," Sifferlen said. "They've shown no commitment to following anything so far."

Neighbors wonder why the city is taking such a hard line now. And whether the new stadium has anything to do with it. Has the stadium sparked redevelopment interest, and is the city quietly trying to pave the way?

Land speculators have purchased several properties in the neighborhood this year. One group, Stadium Partners LLC, bought 11 parcels from a postal worker who used to deliver to the neighborhood. Another group, Red Circle Properties LLC, bought two more.

Pauline Finkton, acting president of the Babe Denny Neighborhood Group, thinks the city wants IWS out of Babe Denny. She just wants the company to follow code.

"The city has let him get away with violations for so many years, so why are they cracking down now?" Finkton asked.

The president of IWS, Dwight Darlage, also is confused. He said he didn't even know he was in violation until a couple of years ago. That's when he hired Clark and began taking proactive steps to fix the problems.

Darlage said he helped prepare a list of potential violations the city eventually used as a basis for its lawsuit. In the past, he says, he could always "work out something." Now, other pressures seem to be at work.

"I wish I could say, honestly, what the city is trying to do," Darlage said. "I don't know what the city is trying to do. But I feel like, as a taxpayer, I've been bullied around."

Whatever the motivation, the attention should be good for Babe Denny, said Mark Flanary, executive director of the Concord Community Development Corp., which aims to provide low- to moderate-income housing in the area.

The neighborhood officially is bordered by South and Morris streets, West Street and Madison Avenue, and is named for a former Parks Department employee.

The neighborhood originally was settled by German, Irish and Jewish immigrants in the mid-1800s. After World War II, many blacks from the South moved into the neighborhood, and it remains predominantly black.

Zoning maps envision more limits on industrial uses, an evolution from the mix of homes, mills and warehouses that filled the neighborhood years ago.

"I don't think there's anybody in Babe Denny that thinks it'll be the Babe Denny of old," Flanary said.

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