Ralston Square development lures bar, hotel, bowling alley

July 7, 2008

A trendy bar and an upscale hotel have agreed to anchor the 11-story Ralston Square project slated for South Street between Meridian and Pennsylvania streets.

The developers of the $60 million mixed-use project are moving forward after landing the tenants necessary to secure a loan commitment, said Brian Epstein, president of locally based Urban Space Commercial Properties and a partner on the project. The group filed for zoning approvals June 24, and hopes to break ground in the fall.

BlackFinn Restaurant & Saloon--a New York-style bar chain with locations in Cincinnati, Cleveland and six other cities--plans to take about 7,500 square feet on the first floor, and the restaurant's parent company also wants the rest of the floor for two other concepts, Epstein said. One of them, a swanky bowling alley called Strike City Lanes, would take 23,000 square feet. And a third, yet-to-be-determined concept would take the rest of the first floor.

Three of the building's upper floors would be home to a 155-room Cambria Suites hotel developed by Ceres Enterprises LLC of Ohio. The hotel would occupy the seventh, eighth and ninth floors and include king- and double-bed suites. Plans for the seventh floor call for a two-story hotel lobby and a restaurant.

The plans also call for 550 parking spaces and 40 condos ranging in size from 850 square feet to 3,000 square feet. The second floor could be retail, office or a fitness center. Parking would be on levels three through six. "It's coming together, slowly but surely," Epstein said. "In this economy, nothing moves quickly, but we're happy with the anchors we've lined up. We think they'll be successful."

The developers have added a floor and tweaked the design since they unveiled the project last October. The plans now call for a building set along South Street separate from railroad tracks that form a northern boundary for the 1-1/2-acre site.

The building is being designed by locally based Ratio Architects and is named for Alexander Ralston, a man who helped design the original one-mile grid plan for the city of Indianapolis. Building materials will include brick, metal and glass-curtain walls, according to a filing with the Metropolitan Development Commission.

Property records show the site, at 365 S. Meridian St., is owned by a company called Norle Investments Inc. It last appraised for tax purposes at $617,000.

Norle and its president, Larry Cohen, are listed as applicants on the zoning application for the project, which needs variance approvals for encroachment of the sky-exposure plane. Epstein said Ralston Square LLC should have been listed as the applicant, not Norle. He would not say whether Norle is a silent partner on the project.

Ralston Square could be a milestone for the city in a couple of ways. It would be one of the first new projects to venture south of the psychological barrier created by the railroad tracks, filling in an area surrounded by Conseco Fieldhouse, Lucas Oil Stadium and the corporate campuses of Eli Lilly and Co. and Anthem.

It also could be the first mid-rise project to win Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification for its "green" components, including its roof and solar shading mesh. The original plans called for 30,000 square feet of "green" roof, but that has been scaled back in the new design.

The developers worked to acquire the site from multiple property owners over the last few years and now own all of it, Epstein said. The developers are not planning to seek city incentives for the project.

Real estate observers expect Ralston Square's pre-leasing of retail space, large parking component and its deal for a small boutique hotel will help it succeed in a competitive market.

The project is one of several in the works that would add hotel space downtown, including a new JW Marriott convention hotel, two hotels at Pennsylvania and Maryland streets, and a handful of others surrounding Lucas Oil Stadium.

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