Irvington confronts development dilemma: District’s new historic guidelines receive first test

A proposed development that would bring a Starbucks and a Union Federal Bank branch to the east side of Irvington presents a conundrum for folks there thirsting to revitalize the historic but neglected neighborhood.

Local developer Tharp Investments Inc. wants to demolish a NAPA auto-parts store and a vacant building on adjoining properties it owns on East Washington Street to make way for the coffee shop and bank.

Residents welcome the investment as a first step in a broader plan to attract additional economic activity to the area. But the initial design presented by the developer rankled many who dismissed the drawings as too suburban for their urban enclave.

The development, the first commercial endeavor to receive scrutiny under Irvington’s new designation as a Historic Preservation District, presents an intriguing dilemma in balancing that preservation with progress.

“There has to be a strong economic base,” said Jeff Spalding, president of the Irvington Development Organization. “Without that, what are you preserving? You’re preserving deteriorating assets.”

The IDO’s mission is to promote economic development opportunities in the area. While the group supports the preservation efforts, in this instance, it would cut the developer a little slack in hopes the Starbucks and bank will jump-start the revitalization effort.

Another neighborhood organization, the Historic Irvington Community Council, takes a more stringent approach and favors designs that adhere to historic guidelines.

With that in mind, Tharp withdrew its plans and is set to unveil new sketches in April. Tharp’s lawyer, Peter Cleveland, told Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission members at a Feb. 1 preliminary presentation that designers would do their best to return with something suitable to them. But, he warned, all conceivable designs have been exhausted and the opportunity to attract the companies may pass them by.

Brian Mack, Community Council vice president, said the residents shouldn’t settle for a bad design just to attract business.

“To bend those rules means you’re setting a precedent, and you might have to bend the rules for another development coming into the neighborhood,” Mack said. “Then you kind of negate [the reason for] having a preservation district.”

The properties Tharp owns are at the northeast corner of Washington Street and Audubon Road, or the eastern end of a quarter-mile stretch of Washington the IDO has designated as the heart of Irvington’s commercial corridor. The group secured a $1.2 million federal grant to fund landscaping improvements and the installation of historic streetlights, benches and possibly a median. The work should begin late this year and is targeted for completion in 2008.

When finished, he envisions an area emulating the pockets of small retail activity found at 49th and Pennsylvania streets and 56th and Illinois streets.

The Starbucks would be built where a dilapidated NAPA auto-parts store currently sits. The bank branch would be constructed on adjoining land, now occupied by an abandoned building that once housed a Noble Roman’s pizza parlor.

The designs that created the stir at the preliminary presentation to IHPC showed drive-through lanes at both locations situated between the buildings and the sidewalks. Historic preservationists discourage that type of design because it dissuades pedestrian traffic. They want the storefronts next to the sidewalks, to conform to what is known as the “urban-edge” approach.

Those on both sides of the issue say they favor some sort of compromise with the developer on designs that would accommodate pedestrian and commuter traffic.

“Everybody wants and supports very heartily this development in this neighborhood,” said John Robertson, who operates The Legend restaurant nearby. “It’s unfortunate at this point we’re in a situation where everybody has agreed to historic preservation, but is butting heads over economic development.”

Robertson has taken the position that development, no matter what additional business might follow, needs to follow the historic standards. Anthony Lineberry, who owns the Snips hair salon just doors from Robertson’s eatery, concurred. He said the initial Starbucks design presented by developers resembles those found in the suburbs.

“We’re more than willing to compromise,” he said, “but with this historic designation, we need to be a little more special.”

David Lurvey owns the 1920s-era strip center that houses Robertson’s and Lineberry’s establishments. He bought the building seven years ago and is afraid Starbucks will abandon the project if the situation becomes too contentious.

He told IHPC members his vacancy rate is at an all-time high and he favors the development, regardless of design. Lurvey further doubts a historic design will help draw the amount of pedestrians supporters envision, noting the extent of foot traffic now mainly consists of a “couple of hookers once in a while.”

“Some people believe Starbucks is so enamored with the site that they’ll do anything, and they won’t,” Lurvey said. “I haven’t seen a Starbucks in this town that would not be a vast improvement to what sits on those corners now.”

Ohio-based Sky Financial Group Inc.’s acquisition of Union Federal has not dampened interest in the neighborhood, observers said.

Adding to the uncertainty of the Tharp proposals is the fact that the Irvington neighborhood’s new status as a Historic Preservation District is not finished. It is still formalizing guidelines and standards designs would have to meet. The interim rules it is following were approved by the IHPC, which grants historic status and enforces accompanying standards.

While Irvington residents have input on developments, the IHPC ultimately approves the designs.

“It’s a complicated project with not a lot of precedent,” said David Baker, executive director of the IHPC, about the Tharp developments. “Part of it is that we don’t have a final preservation plan, and it’s a new district.”

The IHPC was set to host two public workshops Feb. 16 and Feb. 18 to receive feedback on Irvington’s historic preservation plan. The meetings are among the final steps in the two-year-long process to make Irvington the city’s largest historic district. The final plan, expected to be completed in the summer, will provide more protection than the interim plan now in place.

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