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Preservation group delays action on project with 'digital canvas'

September 3, 2015
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Developers of Montage on Mass unveiled the design for city consideration on on Sept. 2. They announced the project about three years ago. (Rendering courtesy of Schmidt Associates)

The fate of a $50 million, mixed-used apartment complex slated for a prominent corner on Massachusetts Avenue is now uncertain after city preservation officials postponed action late Wednesday over design concerns and questions about a prominent “digital canvas” on the building.

The move by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission means developers could have to rethink the project’s design and may be forced to alter the distinctive, three-story electronic-mesh art display, said architect Wayne Schmidt of Schmidt and Associates.

But Schmidt said he’s confident the project will go forward. “I don’t think it’s in jeopardy,” he said

Still, it wasn’t the outcome developers were hoping for.

The commission continued until next month the proposal by J.C. Hart and Strongbox Commercial for the 236-unit apartment complex called “Montage on Mass.” The building features about 36,000 square feet of retail space at the avenue’s intersection with North New Jersey Street near Old National Centre.

The decision, commission members said, was partly due to requests from Indianapolis City-County Council members concerned that the massive screen proposed for the building amounts to a digital billboard. Digital billboards are banned in Indianapolis, though the billboard industry has been negotiating to get the prohibition lifted.

The plan for a digital canvas “should be postponed until … guidelines are vetted through a thorough and public process,” Democratic Councilor Zach Adamson wrote in a letter Wednesday to the preservation commission.

The developer says the digital screen is meant to showcase local art and interactive features, not advertisements.

“This is about growing the art community in downtown Mass Ave,” Schmidt said. “This is a way to start bringing artists back.”

Despite the commission’s vote to delay a final decision on the project, Schmidt said he remains confident the project would eventually go forward—with or without the digital canvas element. But the timeline is now unclear.

“We just have to rethink the total design and take a fresh look. It won’t happen instantly,” Schmidt said.

The proposal is officially continued until the commission’s Oct. 7 meeting. But it’s possible the developer will wait longer than that to know the fate of the digital canvas.

Indianapolis officials currently are rethinking the city’s sign ordinance following public debate over whether the city should remove the digital billboard ban. The City-County Council likely will take up the issue again next spring.

 “When this gets addressed is a real unknown,” said the commission’s administrator, David Baker. “It will take quite a while. I don’t even know how to begin to guess.”

The decision to continue the project came after commission members cited new concerns about some of the apartment project’s features—from the design of the right-of-way near the planned first-floor retail space to the bold colors chosen for the siding.

“We have been inundated with colorful panels” on downtown apartment buildings, said Susan Williams, the commission’s treasurer. “I know the intent was vibrancy. Then, you drive around and it seems really like overkill to me.”

Schmidt said he was surprised to hear about the aesthetic concerns. He said he wished they had been brought up more than two years ago when the preservation commission first discussed the project.

But the commission’s president, Ratio Architects principal William Browne, said a lot has happened in those two years that has informed how city planning officials are thinking about new developments.

 “This isn’t a rubber stamp session,” Browne said. “A lot has gone under the bridge since then.” 

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