Cultural Trail spurs development plan along Virginia Avenue

June 8, 2009

Could the Virginia Avenue corridor eventually challenge Mass Ave as the hip place to live downtown?

A local architecture firm hopes to make a strong case with an arts-themed development on the site of a former mail-sorting facility in Fletcher Place.

The $9 million project called Fletcher Place Arts would include 56 mostly one-bedroom apartments, 8,700 square feet of first-floor retail or office space, and a second-floor office suite to accommodate a not-for-profit organization. It would take up about an acre at the corner of Virginia Avenue and McCarty Street and include a common area on the roof and a large art installation in the atrium.

The developer, Craig E. Von Deylen of locally based Perkins VonDeylen Architects, said what really sold him on the site is the planned arrival of the Cultural Trail. In fact, he hopes to start construction at the same time work is scheduled to begin on the Virginia Avenue leg of the $55 million trail in early 2010.

The five-story project must win a zoning change from the city before the developer demolishes the existing one-story structure. And, of course, there's the issue of financing: Von Deylen said he's all set for the apartment portion but needs to secure commitments from tenants for the commercial part of the financing. He's been talking with the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, or iMoCA, about occupying the not-for-profit space, but no deal has been reached.

Von Deylen already has a track record of apartment development in Fletcher Place, most recently with Fletcher Place Terrace, a $2 million in-fill development slated to wrap up construction this summer. For Fletcher Place Arts, which would be Perkins VonDeylen's largest project to date, the firm's focus remains on aesthetics.

"Our goal was not just to design a great building, but to inspire good design in an underappreciated quadrant of the city," said Von Deylen, who is working with locally based Level Interior Architecture and Design on the project.

The Fletcher Place neighborhood is flush with condos including conversion units at the Union Laundry Lofts and the former Horace Mann School, but there aren't enough rental options to satisfy demand.

A few visitors per day to the nine-story Villaggio at Page Pointe condo building ask whether rentals are available in the neighborhood, said Tony Page, president of locally based Page Development, which built the condos at Virginia Avenue and South East Street.

The project still has 23 unsold units out of 61 total. Page has turned four into rentals for now, and they go for $3,500 to $4,500 per month, well out of the price range of most prospective renters. The one-bedroom Fletcher Place Arts units would go for about $1,400 per month with parking included.

"The market will take that easy right now," Page said of the Fletcher Place Arts apartments. "That's what everybody is looking for, one-bedroom rentals. People can't afford anything bigger right now."

Jeff Miller, president of the Fletcher Place Neighborhood Association, sees the proposed project as a nice Virginia Avenue bookend to the high-end Villaggio.

"We feel like it ties the whole Virginia Avenue corridor together," said Miller, who has lived in the neighborhood 12 years. "We're hoping it really sparks some economic development in between; we'd love to see some of the empty buildings filled in."

The project also could help extend the artists' vibe that has been spreading in Fountain Square, which is just an interstate overpass away from Fletcher Place. Leaders in both neighborhoods are angling for residential density to support a growing lineup of street-level retailers.

"From a use standpoint, it fits with everything we're trying to do in Fountain Square," said Paul Baumgarten, an economic development specialist with the not-for-profit development corporation Southeast Neighborhood Development, or SEND. "We need to bring more people and income into the neighborhood to make the areas viable."

Von Deylen plans to finance about 80 percent of the project and is considering whether to apply for new-market tax credits through the not-for-profit Local Initiative Support Corp. He does not plan to seek city incentives.

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