Carmel resident Jane Fleck’s historic two-story home on First Street Southwest—believed to have been built in 1883—could soon be surrounded by all new structures.
On the west side, a single-family home is under construction. To the north, a mixed-use building as tall as 35 feet could replace existing single-story houses. And to the south, Carmel’s Midtown development has been mapped out.
It’s no surprise. The Monon Trail that runs along the east side of the house that she and her husband have lived in since 1992 was the first indication their neighborhood would be changing. The Flecks considered moving then.
“We made a list of everything we wanted and realized we were living in it,” Fleck said. “When the Monon came in, the number of people on our street increased a lot, which is OK.” But she said commercial development next to residential “is a tough balance to keep.”
Still, the Flecks are planning to stay put and embrace the changes poised for Carmel.
Those changes will mean more redevelopment in Carmel’s urban core. Officials have started laying the groundwork with proposals that would change the historic status of hundreds of buildings, eliminate industrial use from certain areas, and allow new buildings to tower as high as 75 feet.
Most of the proposed adjustments apply to the areas known as Old Town—the city’s downtown encompassing the Arts & Design District and neighborhoods to the north along Rangeline Road—as well as Midtown—the area between downtown Carmel and City Center to the west of Rangeline along the Monon.
The changes are part of Mayor Jim Brainard’s vision for the city, and the proposals could breeze through the approval process now that he has a new—and more supportive—Carmel City Council in office.
Several items are on the council’s agenda for Feb. 1 and even those slated for first reading could pass quickly.
“Ultimately, I think the city wants to continue with the progress being made,” said Mike Hollibaugh, Carmel director of community services.
Nearly four years ago, urban planner Jeff Speck, principal of Speck and Associates LLC, outlined what downtown Carmel and the surrounding commercial and retail areas could look like in the future.
The blueprint included converting single-family homes into multistory buildings and adding row houses with parking hidden from the streets and sidewalks.
Carmel leaders have regularly revisited the concept and now two rezoning requests involving 80 parcels in Midtown and Old Town could take a step toward making the plan a reality. Properties currently zoned for business, residential and industrial would be changed to one of the city’s commercial redevelopment zoning categories.
The changes are geared toward fostering public and private partnerships, protecting the character of historic Old Town, and coordinating with City Center building designs, officials said.
But the details of what that commercial zoning means are also under review. The existing guidelines call for a maximum building height of 60 feet or four stories. The proposed version would allow buildings of 75 feet or six stories. However, new structures adjacent to single-family homes would be limited to 35 feet.
Hollibaugh said if the new standards are adopted, 68 parcels could be rezoned in Midtown. But he said the 12 properties in Old Town would have lower height restrictions because the area is surrounded by residences.
In Midtown, most of the properties suggested for rezoning are currently under industrial use and border other commercial land.
“The industrial that’s there today is really a remnant of Carmel in the 1960s,” Hollibaugh said. “That industrial was at one point on the edge of town. Now it’s in the middle of the town.”
Both rezoning proposals are pending before the Carmel Plan Commission, and a few members have expressed concerns about eliminating some of the already-limited space for industrial business.
“I’d hate for it to disappear,” Commissioner Dennis Lockwood said at a recent meeting. “I think it’s a vital element of the city.”
Hollibaugh said the city has been searching for other pockets of land for industry for years, but the Midtown property is seen as too valuable to continue allowing that usage.
“How do we make it work? The city does need to figure out how we keep businesses like that,” Hollibaugh said. “It’s not been the highest priority to keep industrial when what’s taking it over is a use that people really like, too.”
Under the proposals, none of the existing businesses or tenants would be forced to move, but future property owners or tenants would have to comply with the commercial zoning.
“This isn’t intended to be a hostile move by the city,” Hollibaugh said. “It’s not a stretch at all to keep them. They can thrive and Midtown can thrive also.”
Brainard also wants to increase the height of buildings along the corridor into City Center, Midtown and Old Town.
A proposal to reinstate a minimum height of two stories along Rangeline Road is headed to the City Council.
In 2005, Carmel mandated that new structures along the main thoroughfare be at least two stories or 17 feet tall. That’s why the Turkey Hill gas station on the corner of Rangeline and Carmel Drive and the Walgreens on the corner of Rangeline and 116th Street both have second levels.
The council removed the requirement in 2013 after space in those buildings sat vacant, and the extra height was seen as an unnecessary cost for developers.
“We’re just putting back what we think makes sense,” Hollibaugh said. “There’s a lot of investment that’s occurred along Rangeline, and we think it makes sense to apply it uniformly.”
Out with the old
The City Council could also soon vote to change the status of hundreds of buildings in Old Town from “contributing” historic value to “non-contributing,” which could open the door for rezoning or easier removal of the structures.
Old Town is the city’s oldest neighborhood, and even though it’s been specially designated for years as a way to preserve its character and minimize demolition, it is not technically a historic or conservation district, which would provide further protections.
Raina Regan, community preservation specialist for Indiana Landmarks, said a majority of the neighborhood was constructed in the 1950s, but some houses date to the 1800s.
She said when an area is surveyed for historic significance, structures need to be at least 50 years old to be considered, which would apply to most in Old Town. But the organization doesn’t push historic designation in unwanted areas.
“We often say it’s up to the neighbors, to the community, to decide what’s worth preserving,” Regan said. “It’s something that has been explored [with Old Town residents]. We want to see that there is support from the neighborhood.”
More than 300 buildings in Old Town are considered “contributing,” which means the structures have historic value or significance. But the number could soon be reduced to only 65.
Fleck’s home is now considered “contributing” and would remain so if the new map is approved.
The decision to drop houses from the list moves in the opposite direction of recommendations from a 2014 survey of the area by Indianapolis-based Gray & Pape Inc. and Indiana Landmarks, which identified nearly 380 buildings as “contributing.”
“I think the Plan Commission just felt like not every building was a contributing building,” Hollibaugh said. “We took documents produced over the years and tried to narrow it to what we thought was the best of the best of the homes that remain—the best examples of what Old Town Carmel was originally.”
Some buildings have been demolished in Old Town for various reasons, and it’s possible more could come down.
“If the replacement value of the new home proposed is so great, or it doesn’t make economic sense to keep the old, that’s one of the criteria,” Hollibaugh said. “For the most part, the buildings that have come down have made a lot of sense.”
Three homes to the west of Fleck’s property were torn down, and a custom home is being constructed in their place.
Hollibaugh said most of Old Town will likely remain single-family, but redevelopment could encroach along the neighborhood’s borders.
“That’s [in] keeping with how the city would like the area to develop,” he said. “You might see some nibbling along the edges.”
Fleck isn’t worried about her house, though.
“I think it lends itself to staying around,” she said.•