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Pedestrian bridge to state park still in the works: White River venues think hotel complex will be a boost

February 4, 2008

Developers of the $425 million hotel complex downtown still are working out plans for a pedestrian bridge spanning Washington Street that will connect it to White River State Park.

Merrillville-based White Lodging Co. and Indianapolis-based REI Real Estate Services proposed a connector-either a bridge or an underground tunnel-in early designs of the convention hotel complex at the southwest corner of West and Washington streets.

Although later site plans did not include the link, REI President Mike Wells said the developers still intend to build it.

"We always thought our parcel could be the connector between downtown and White River State Park," he said.

It's unclear at this point how much the connector would cost, but Wells said the developers will pay for it. An enclosed walkway across West Street also is planned.

With both connectors in place, the park will be more easily accessible from both the convention center and Circle Centre mall.

Park Executive Director Bob Whitt said West Street has always been a bit of a barrier to people coming to the park.

"[The hotel project] will add a lot of life and vibrancy to the neighborhood and really be a connector psychologically as well as physically to downtown," he said.

Developers dropped the option of an underground tunnel because the length needed-about a half mile-wouldn't make for a pleasant walk.

But a preliminary sketch of a bridge version was presented recently to the White River State Park Development Commission. In it, an uncovered pedestrian bridge had a gentle enough incline that it would be wheelchair-accessible without the need for an elevator.

"We want the connector to have some architectural significance, to be artinspired," Wells said. He would not share the early design with IBJ.

The complex will include a 1,000-room J.W. Marriott hotel, a 168-room Fairfield Inn & Suites and a 150-room SpringHill Suites. The existing Courtyard by Marriott will close after this year's Indianapolis 500 to be gutted and renovated; it will reopen with the other hotels in spring 2011.

The city is slated to spend $48.5 million on site improvements after signing the final project agreement in August. Then construction will begin.

A connector linking those 1,568 guest rooms with the park could translate into a bump in foot traffic for its attractions, including the Indianapolis Zoo, the Indiana State Museum, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the NCAA Hall of Champions and outdoor amphitheater The Lawn.

Eiteljorg President John Vanausdall is excited about the hotel complex going up across Washington Street.

"To think of all those people looking out their windows right down onto our property, it will be a great boon for the Eiteljorg," Vanausdall said. And the connector will be a specific "invitation to cross the street."

Now, the heavy traffic and multiple lanes on Washington and West streets make crossing on foot hazardous, Vanausdall said.

Another attraction executive said that, while the hotels can only be a plus for the area, it remains to be seen whether they will attract more tourists or conventioneers.

"Conventions are quite businesslike anymore," said state museum Director Barry Dressel. "People's time to utilize cultural attractions isn't as large as others frequently think it is."

Still, a connector could help the hotels, too, allowing them to market themselves as easily walkable to "internationally known attractions," said Sotiris Avgoustis, chairman of IUPUI's Tourism Department. "It will be a win-win situation for everyone involved."

The park and hotels also are working together on parking issues. Late last year, developers agreed to provide an as-yetunspecified number of parking spaces for use by park visitors.

The park has nearly 2,000 parking spaces now and is studying how many spots it needs to accommodate regular demand.

Wells said hotel developers will provide paid spaces open to the public. The 1,000 spaces already planned for the complex won't count, Whitt said, since guests likely will need most of them. Instead, the park plans to add a parking garage eventually.
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