Herron site might be used for new school: Charter campus proposed for soon-to-be vacated spot

Joanna Taft isn’t content helping to develop emerging artists.

She also wants to help develop art patrons-and the historic neighborhood around what will soon be the former home of IUPUI’s Herron School of Art at Pennsylvania and 16th streets.

So Taft, executive director at the nearby Harrison Center for the Arts, is working on plans for a charter high school to occupy a portion of the space IUPUI will vacate when it moves the art school to the campus proper this fall.

“If we’re trying to tell the world we’re a firstclass city, we need to be known for a first-class education,” she said. “We really need an academically strong high school downtown, and I’d like to be part of the solution.”

If only it were that easy.

Before Taft can pursue her dream of opening a high school with a strong liberal-arts focus, her proposal must make its way through Indianapolis’ rigorous charter school application process.

Then there’s the would-be location: The city will take over the Herron property when the art school moves out, but officials are eager to find a new owner and new purpose for it as soon as possible.

And Taft’s idea is but one possibility.

“If we didn’t own it at all, that would be really good,” said Maury Plambeck, director of the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development. “We’re not really in the business of managing property. It’s important that this property … be used in a way that will benefit the neighborhood and the city.”

To that end, Plambeck’s staff has convened a committee to evaluate reuse options and make a recommendation to the city, possibly this month. Once planners settle on a purpose for the site, they will seek formal proposals from developers.

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Taft intends to be one of them.

Her idea is for Herron High School to offer a classical liberal-arts education. Such a curriculum, she said, would produce graduates who appreciate and support the arts.

University of Indianapolis’ Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning gave Taft’s group a $40,000 grant to explore the idea this summer as part of its small-schools initiative. Herron High would be limited to 400 students.

“We’re talking about a small school that’s walkable,” Taft said. “It’s not intended to be competition” for existing schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools-which serves the area with Arsenal Technical High School, about three miles away-also is working with the U of I. Superintendent Pat Pritchett expressed some skepticism about the need for another high school, but reserved final judgment until he knows more about Taft’s proposal.

“We really have pretty good high school saturation, particularly with the number of small schools we’re forming,” he said. “Students have lots of options.”

Herron High would be different from other public schools, Taft insisted. Research into successful education models nationwide brought her nearly full circle-to The Oaks Academy, a private school just more than a mile away.

Oaks takes a classical approach, focusing on math, science and humanities while exposing students to the great works of Western civilization. Students begin learning Latin at age 3. By the time they finish eighth grade, they’ve been taught how to question, analyze and reason their way through a variety of subjects.

Taft was impressed by the school’s strategy, and its success.

All of its eighth-graders passed the math portion of the state’s ISTEP-Plus test last year, according to the Indiana Department of Education; 90 percent passed the English portion.

And Oaks accomplished that in a challenging environment, Taft said. Half of the school’s 220 students come from lowincome families.

“It is one of the best models in the country for educating urban children,” she said. “That’s what we want to do.”

The proposed location makes sense, she said, since the Herron site has been used for arts and education for more than 100 years. The main gallery building, which faces 16th Street, was dedicated in November 1906; two other structures were added in the 1920s and 1960s.

Taft wants the school to move into the newer buildings, which already are equipped with classrooms and studios. She’s been talking with possible partners who might be interested in the gallery space.

The possibilities are almost endless, said Taft, who also is a member of the advisory committee. Suggestions so far have run the gamut, from a museum for Hoosier artists to a gallery featuring sports-themed art.

She intends to identify a partner and submit a proposal that would use the entire site.

“I don’t think the city is looking for a partial solution,” she said. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle. We just have to put the pieces together.”

Architecture students from Ball State University have started doing that-literally-by offering design suggestions for two possible reuses: the charter school and a new home for Ball State’s graduate school of architecture.

Their models are on display at the BSU College of Architecture’s Indianapolis Center downtown, and committee members will review them later this month.

“We’re using the students’ work to explore the possibilities, as talking points,” said CAPIC Director Scott Truex, who also is active on the committee. “We’re doing anything we can to help move the project along.”

Plambeck said the possibilities are still wide open, despite the apparent focus on educational and arts uses.

“We’re looking for a good reuse for the

property,” he said. “I don’t think any one

option is any better than the others.”

Neither does Tom Forman, president of the Herron-Morton Place Neighborhood Association. But there are a couple of options he thinks would be worse.

“There are two things we really don’t want-the buildings to sit empty or someone to come in and turn them into condos,” Forman said. “That would destroy their historic character.”

Plambeck, who told the committee early on that the city would prefer to transfer the property to a tax-paying entity, said he hasn’t heard from private developers interested in the site.

That could have something to do with the likely expense of refurbishing it, said Jeremy Efroymson, executive director of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.

“We’d love to be in there,” he said, referring to the museum that now occupies gallery space donated by the Katz & Korin law firm. “It would be beautiful. We could do a sculpture garden on the lawn. … It would be the coolest thing.

“The price tag is the problem.”

Renovating the three buildings could cost anywhere from $8.8 million to $17 million, according to a 2001 study conducted for the Central Indiana Community Foundation. CICF was considering the site at the time for future office and program space, but has since abandoned the idea.

Taft is optimistic nonetheless.

“One of the goals in the process is to generate a community conversation that will result in an excellent reuse,” she said. “I feel like something great is going to happen at the Herron campus at the end of this.”

She has a personal interest, obviously, but said she’s keeping an open mind.

“We want to do what’s best for the community. If someone else comes along with a better idea, we would move the school elsewhere,” Taft said. “So far, I haven’t heard a better idea.”

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