EDITORIAL: Mass Ave site needs big thinking

August 15, 2015

A rare opportunity to graft a creative, integrative development into the burgeoning north end of Massachusetts Avenue sits on 11 acres just east of College Avenue. And a need for a thoughtful, comprehensive project has never been more important.

Property owner Indianapolis Public Schools announced last month that it’s selling the site anchored by historic 1931 art deco buildings that originally housed a Coca-Cola bottling plant. School officials have said they want to select a developer by year end. We urge them to be patient, extending that target if necessary to secure the best long-term plan.

Such a large urban tract hitting the market within a vibrant retail and residential neighborhood at a time downtown housing is booming means developers are likely salivating over the request for proposals IPS has asked for by Aug. 27. Real estate experts interviewed for IBJ reporter Scott Olson’s Aug. 10 story predicted a mix of retail and housing will win the day, likely including a parking garage and possibly even a boutique hotel.

Neighborhood advocates—including local merchants and property owners who’ve hoped for years for a better use for the land that has housed IPS buses since 1975—say they’ll be happy to welcome mixed-use, even including a possible select chain or two such as Target or specialty grocer Trader Joe’s. And they’re eager for a parking structure to help alleviate a worsening parking shortage.

But they also know would-be developers might not share their big-picture vision for Mass Ave. A vision that is anchored in terms like: Local. Independent. High-quality products. Interesting. Supportive. Small. Dense. Creative.

Developer and restaurateur Tom Battista, who has been rehabbing abandoned buildings on Mass Ave since the 1980s, pointed out the possibilities for an esplanade to run between white-glazed, terra-cotta-covered parking garages on the property. Such an avenue could be transformed into a scenic walking promenade between small businesses housed in the garages, he said.

“A lot of cities try to re-create” old-fashioned promenades from scratch, he said, while the Coca-Cola property already “has one that’s historic.”

That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is what will be required to make the most of a tract that has separated a handful of shops at the far end of Mass Ave from the long-flourishing section west of College.

Elizabeth Garber, whose Best Chocolate in Town has resided in the orphan end of the street since 2007, said her business has increased each year despite the separation.

But developing the IPS property will only enhance the forward motion she’s experiencing, she said—as long as the use is thoughtful.

“We don’t want a bunch of mass-produced stuff that doesn’t fit our culture,” she said.

We ask IPS to weigh that consideration, and to seek the wisdom of Mass Ave property owners and merchants as part of its bid due diligence.•


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