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Crown Hill's land in play: Cemetery negotiating 66-acre property sale with local developer

November 14, 2005

Carmel-based Brenwick Development Co., known for luxury residential developments in Hamilton County, has struck a deal to buy 66 acres of land at the north end of Crown Hill Cemetery.

Brenwick has signed a letter of intent to purchase the wooded land, cemetery President Keith Norwalk confirmed.

Negotiations between Brenwick and Crown Hill are in the early stages, Norwalk stressed. He said there won't be a closing of the transaction anytime soon.

"There will be significant negotiation before it's a done deal," Norwalk said.

He declined to give specifics on Brenwick's plan pending negotiations, but the development is expected to include a strong residential component. The property is listed for $4.7 million.

Brenwick CEO George Sweet declined to elaborate on the firm's plans. Brenwick's current developments include the upscale Lochaven on 146th Street and the Village of WestClay, a 650-acre mixed-use new urbanism development in west Carmel.

Last month, Norwalk said several developers had expressed interest in the property. All proposals "presented a very thoughtful analysis of the land and retention of the natural landscape involved," he said at the time.

Various proposals submitted for the land, marketed by the local office of St. Louis-based Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, included combinations of single- and multifamily housing, neighborhood-oriented retail and a small hotel, Norwalk said.

The land Crown Hill is selling runs east of Michigan Road along the south side of 42nd Street. The Indianapolis Museum of Art is across Michigan Road to the west, and Christian Theological Seminary sits between the land and White River. The densely populated Butler-Tarkington neighborhood and Butler University lie east and north.

Crown Hill decided to sell the land after a new cemetery mapping system revealed the 550-acre cemetery has enough burial space to last 268 years, Norwalk said. That's at current demand levels, which are expected to decline in future years because of a trend toward cremations and suburbanites' penchant for burial in outlying cemeteries.

Money generated from the sale of the land will go into the not-for-profit cemetery's endowment, which will pay maintenance costs on the cemetery after all the burial plots have been sold, Norwalk said. Maintenance and operation costs are currently paid for through burial and service fees, a portion of which also goes into the endowment fund, he said.

"Our endowment is not sufficient to handle annual maintenance costs even today, [which are] in excess of $3 million," Norwalk said. He characterized the planned land sale, which was approved by the cemetery's board of managers, as a "very sound business decision."

Any development on the land would require that it be rezoned from the cemetery's special-use designation and go through a public hearing process.

In the meantime, Crown Hill has notified the institutions and neighborhoods surrounding it of its intentions to sell the land, although none have been notified of Brenwick's specific plans.

Some residents of Butler-Tarkington have expressed concern over the loss of the wooded area, now enclosed within the cemetery's fence, said Elsa Maschmeyer Iverson, president of the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association, adding the association hasn't taken a position on the potential sale. Those residents would like to see the 66 acres become a park, but "[Crown Hill] is a business; they have business concerns," she said.

Others have expressed concern that any retail component might pull business away from the corners of 40th and 42nd streets and Boulevard Place, just east of the cemetery. The neighborhood has "worked hard to keep that afloat," she said.

Norwalk has been invited to an upcoming association meeting to discuss the cemetery's plans, Iverson said. Based on experience with the cemetery, she said she doesn't expect discussions to be particularly contentious.

"Obviously, it's in Crown Hill's best interest to do something that will continue to be high-quality 75 or 100 years from now," she said.

Other cemetery neighbors said they expect to be part of the sale and subsequent development process, but that they aren't particularly worried about what ends up on the land.

"We do look forward to being part of the discussion," said Jessica Di Santo, spokeswoman for IMA. The museum uses parts of Crown Hill and other neighboring institutions for overflow parking a few times a year, such as during the Penrod Arts Festival.

New housing would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood, bringing new residents and a higher tax base, said Chris Varnau, a spokesman for Christian Theological Seminary. It could also spur further improvements in the area, he said.

"We would hope any housing would be integrated, not just developed as a private enclave," he said.
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