WestClay moves retail to the fringe: Brenwick modifies commercial part of plan

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As land is cleared for the final major sections of Carmel’s Village of WestClay, the developer of the Indianapolis area’s most-heralded example of new urbanism is discovering an age-old truth: Plans change.

WestClay Uptown and the West Village, as they will be called, represent major changes to Brenwick Development’s plan and reflect changing demand from inside and outside the borders of the 686-acre development.

Staying are WestClay’s guiding concepts-a mammoth subdivision designed in the style of a 19th century village and a wide range of pre-1920 architectural styles that embrace plank siding and eschew what Brenwick CEO George Sweet calls “Carmel Gothic.”

Gone is the idea of the village itself supporting 275,000 square feet of office and retail uses in two- and threestory buildings lining the streets of the town center.

As the newest sections take shape, Brenwick hopes to keep the design focus on the traditional-commercial buildings that hug the street, with parking in the back-while conceding to modern demands for things like one-story drugstores and banks with drive-through lanes.

Early this year, Brenwick received approval from the city of Carmel to change its plan, moving 100,000 square feet of its originally planned commercial development from the center of WestClay to the fringes at 131st Street and Towne Road. No tenants have been announced yet, but Sweet said interest has been strong from neighborhood-convenience retailers.

That’s partly because when Brenwick started construction on WestClay in 2000, western Clay Township was sparsely populated. Since then, thousands of homes have been built nearby, most of them occupied by residents similar to those at WestClay-high-income families with plenty of disposable cash. While retailers find WestClay’s 1,800 planned homes attractive, most want to also tap into surrounding neighborhoods, Sweet said.

West Village will also include a 200-unit senior housing mini-town that will offer a range of independent- and assisted-living options, from bungalows to penthouse apartments. The $50 million community will be developed by St. Louis-based Stratford Cos. Atlanta-based Beazer Homes and locally based Ryland Homes will develop single-family homes and town houses around a park to be named Ronald Reagan Green.

In the village center, condominiums will replace offices above retail storefronts in much the same way unused office buildings in downtown Indianapolis have been converted to condos-only in WestClay, the conversion is taking place pre-construction.

“When WestClay was conceived in 1997, we planned second- and third-floor offices-we thought it would be easy [to lease them],” Sweet said. In hindsight, the office market isn’t as hot as the demand for residential.

The center of WestClay does have a handful of offices, including Brenwick’s headquarters. Independent retailers, including a salon and a small grocery store, have also set up shop. But mostly, the area around WestClay’s monolithic white Meeting House resembles the halfassembled set of an old Western movie-a few facades with wide expanses of empty lots in between.

Sweet expects those gaps will fill in during the coming years. Lot sales for most all the residential areas have begun or soon will begin, but Brenwick doesn’t expect the last lot to sell until 2010. That’s on target with Brenwick’s original 10-year projection, making the project a success so far in the developer’s eyes.

The city of Carmel would agree, said Mike Hollibaugh, director of the city’s department of community services.

“The Village of WestClay has been one of the great projects that’s occurred in town,” Hollibaugh said. “When people come to visit, they want to visit the Village of WestClay. Students come to study it.”

The concept of new urbanism-pedestrian-friendly communities with traditional architecture and a mix of residential and commercial uses-was a tough sell initially in Carmel, Hollibaugh acknowledged. Although similar developments had succeeded on the East and West coasts, the idea of high-density suburban developments ran counter to the central Indiana suburban philosophy of larger lot sizes and delineated residential and commercial areas, he said.

“Whenever people have the opportunity to have commercial built in their neighborhood, they generally conjure up the worst-case image of what it could be,” Hollibaugh said. “That makes it a tough sell.”

It took years of planning and working with officials to get plans for WestClay approved, but city planners have now embraced new urbanism to the extent they are using some of the concepts, such as commercial buildings set close to the street and mixed uses, in city-led projects such as Carmel’s City Center and Providence at Old Meridian, Hollibaugh said.

Even today, residents in the area surrounding WestClay “either like it or don’t like it,” he said. Detractors were concerned with the latest revision to West-Clay’s plans to bring more retail to the fringes of the neighborhood, but the city “didn’t see it that way,” Hollibaugh said.

“We saw it as a natural correction” to the original plans, he said. “Retail in the middle hasn’t worked well in any project. What [Brenwick] is doing is going to help that portion of town.”

Critics resent what they see as the city coming to the countryside, but neighborhood retail encourages less driving, a factor that will become even more important as Carmel becomes part of the regional plan linking towns and cities via mass transit, Hollibaugh said.

Like some of those residents-or perhaps because of them-other developers haven’t wholeheartedly embraced new urbanism when they’re planning subdivisions. Commercial components of subdivisions are more common now than they were five years ago, but the majority of new neighborhoods in Carmel are traditional suburban developments, he said.

Part of the reason has to do with the tastes of the typical central Indiana home buyer, said Mark Flagg, director of Westfield’s Centennial neighborhood at locally based Estridge Cos. Centennial opened a year earlier than WestClay with some of the same new urbanism concepts-lots of walking trails, a commercial and community area in the center, and green spaces throughout. The main, 900-home part of Centennial will soon be sold out, with construction ready to start next spring on a 100-home extension.

Centennial, however, is more of a traditional subdivision when it comes to housing choices. The neighborhood’s six housing types are grouped together in small pockets throughout Centennial-a $200,000 house generally won’t be built next to a $900,000 house as has happened in WestClay, for instance-and Estridge’s designs are the only ones built in the neighborhood.

When he’s asked about the differences between Centennial and WestClay, Flagg said his first response is always, “We have sold out much quicker.”

Homes are, on average, less expensive in Centennial, Flagg said, but he believes the quicker sellout also has to do with the relatively conservative tastes of the central Indiana suburban home buyer.

“There’s fewer people out there that that type of architecture appeals to,” Flagg said. “We took a lot of the new urbanism and neotraditional concepts and made it something that appeals to a larger group of people that live in this area.”

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