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IPS building consensus before building: So far, seeking input from neighbors has avoided major legal fights during $832 million construction program

September 5, 2005

A plan to renovate School 57 in the eastside Irvington neighborhood might require the demolition of three nearby homes whose owners welcome the idea.

That is in stark contrast to the Meridian-Kessler residents who vehemently opposed a proposal earlier this year that could have taken three houses to accommodate the expansion of School 84.

But in both instances, Indianapolis Public Schools is likely to avoid invoking eminent domain powers to forcefully acquire the properties. In doing so, the school corporation should continue an impressive streak of avoiding confrontation with most homeowners.

IPS so far has purchased 47 homes to renovate five elementary schools as it forges ahead with its 10-year, $832 million capital improvement program. Two holdouts remain, although one might settle before reaching the courts, said Deb Kunce, program manager for local architectural firm Schmidt Associates. The firm is the administrator for the IPS project.

Kunce credits IPS' willingness to work closely with homeowners and provide them fair-market value for their houses. IPS seeks at least two independent appraisals on each property and sometimes a third, if a large disparity exists between the two, she said.

"I would consider [eminent domain] a last resort," Kunce said. "It's in the best interest of everyone to be able to work it out together."

Difficult decision

IPS wants to spend nearly $9.6 million to renovate School 57, known as George W. Julian Elementary School, on East Washington Street. The improvements to the structure, built in 1931, include 22,000 square feet of new space for larger kindergarten, music and art rooms, and a new lunchroom, gymnasium and media center.

Although construction is not scheduled to begin until summer 2007, architects and IPS representatives began seeking residential input in early summer as part of the predesign phase.

The next public meeting, in which residents can express which of two remaining designs they prefer, is set for 7 p.m. Sept. 6 at the school.

The Historic Irvington Community Council then will make a recommendation at its meeting Sept. 20, before the IPS Board of Commissioners grants final approval in October.

The design that expands the school to the east would require the razing of three homes on South Ritter Avenue. The other, which takes the addition to the west, would spare nearby homeowners but closely borders property lines.

Irvington's designation as a historic neighborhood further complicates the matter. The Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission would have to approve any plan that includes demolition. Deciding between the two proposals will be difficult, said Brian Mack, vice president of the neighborhood HICC.

"We're kind of torn," he said. "We want renovations to the school, but we don't want to sacrifice our historic resources. It will be a tough decision."

IPS lists several more advantages to the design plan that requires demolition. They include constructing the addition away from Washington Street to allow the historic school structure to remain the "face" seen from Washington, letting the old H.U. Brown library remain, and maintaining the existing size of the playground.

The architect designing the addition is the local office of Celina, Ohio-based Fan- ning/Howey Associates Inc.

'Heavyweight fight' avoided

Similar to School 57, the $9.7 million project to renovate School 84 would begin in 2007 and include a 21,000-square-foot addition housing a new lunchroom, gymnasium and media center. Known as the Joseph J. Bingham School, the facility, built in 1928, is on 57th Street between Central Street and Washington Boulevard.

The IPS Board of Commissioners could approve the plan in October. The process of getting to that point began on a contentious note, however.

IPS originally wanted to close the elementary school in which Sen. Richard Lugar, former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Marilyn Quayle, wife of former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, once strode the halls.

After deciding in 2003 that the school should stay open, IPS opted for renovation instead of tearing it down and building anew. Trouble first arose following a May meeting in which school officials floated two preliminary sketches, both of which required land acquisition. One involved three homes on Washington Boulevard. The other involved one residence along with parcels of several back yards to build a street.

Neighborhood resident Scott Brenton attended the first meeting in which the plans were presented and was surprised to learn his home was among those targeted for demolition. A coalition soon was organized to mount opposition.

"They were going to be in for a heavyweight title fight," Brenton said. "None of

the people whose homes were in jeopardy were interested in selling, and we made that abundantly clear." Meanwhile, the architectural firm of CSO Schenkel Shultz received the contract to design the renovation. Firm CEO and President James Schellinger, a former resident of the neighborhood, viewed the initial sketch and appealed to former IPS Superintendent Pat Pritchett and Kunce to stop the project and start over.

"I saw the picture and freaked out," Schellinger said. "I thought, 'This neighborhood is going to come unglued.'"

Schellinger proposed seven workshops in which residents could provide input into the design process. Roughly 350 people attended the first one, estimated Schellinger, who described the meeting as among the toughest he has attended.

Brenton admitted he and other residents were skeptical of Schellinger in the beginning, but he since has gained their trust as the meetings have progressed.

The CSO design will avoid land acquisition mostly by making concessions and compromises.

Most important, Schellinger said, is that the addition will be stacked on two stories instead of a single level. The bus drop-off and pickup site will remain on 57th Street, off of school grounds. The preliminary design would have brought the area on site. Offices and the media center might be smaller than originally planned.

The goal is to make the school appealing to neighborhood residents, who mostly send their children to private schools, by converting it to a magnet or charter school.

In Schellinger's view, the rapport that has occurred between the residents and the school corporation is unprecedented.

"It's been a real mission," he said, "but it's been fun."
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