URBAN DESIGN: Turning 100 acres from vision to reality

gallagher-urbandesign.jpgWe’re quietly building toward one of the largest opportunities for new urban development in the city’s history, the 103 acres west of downtown and the White River that was formerly the General Motors metal fabrication and stamping plant.

What follows are some things you should know as you evaluate future proposals.

■ First, a little history and background:

From the earliest development of the property as the Parry Manufacturing “buggy works” in 1884, vehicles have been fabricated at this location. In 1930, Chevrolet acquired the site and, with the help of noted architect Albert Kahn, modernized the facility with structures ahead of their time that were designed to bring daylight to the entire factory floor. A small portion of one of these historic crane bays was left in place after the site clearing in 2014, providing an opportunity to repurpose and celebrate the structure as other cities have done with similar Kahn buildings.

Production at the plant reached its peak in 1971 when it employed more than 5,000 people. But those numbers steadily declined, and GM announced in 2006 it would close the facility. As part of its 2009 Chapter 11 reorganization, GM identified the Indy site as an asset to be sold and placed it in a trust tasked with disposing of almost 100 surplus holdings.

The trust will soon accept requests for proposals from parties who want to buy the $9 million property. Over and above offering a fair price, prospective buyers must have a redevelopment plan that promises verifiable job creation and increased tax revenue and that garners community support.

The city has tried to do its part to guide the proposals and set them up for success. Working alongside a collection of development professionals, the city organized public conversations with local stakeholders and married their input with market knowledge and design acumen to create a visual wish list of sorts.

The resulting report, which will be included with the RFP, is an attempt to provide a broader vision without stifling creativity from prospective developers. Additionally, the city has moved forward with its plans to adjust the boundaries of the downtown tax increment financing district to include the GM property. The expanded TIF will capture property tax revenue that will help pay for needed infrastructure improvements to the site.

■ Now on to more abstract considerations regarding the GM property:

In particular, it is extremely difficult to get one’s mind around the development of 100 acres, especially in an urban environment. To give it a mooring in reality, think of it as one-sixth of the Mile Square, about 16 blocks of downtown. This is essentially the same area as three American Legion Malls (the area from the Central Library to the Birch Bayh Federal Building). It is the same as the collection of blocks along the Central Canal from the Statehouse to the 10th Street basin.

And how long does it take to redevelop 100 urban acres? Improvements in and around the historic Wholesale District, for example, an area of less than 16 blocks, began in the 1980s. But that district in the core of downtown still isn’t fully redeveloped, even given its proximity to important draws like Circle Centre mall and the Indiana Convention Center. Visions for the GM site must have a horizon of at least 40 years.

Another way of thinking about the development is in terms of investment. For the sake of comparison, it has been reported that $260 million will be invested in the redevelopment of the former Coca-Cola bottling plant in the northeast corner of downtown. The GM site could accommodate four or five such projects, meaning more than $1 billion of private investment must be brought to the site to fulfill the imagery provided by the city. If we want to put the eventual buyer in a position to be successful, we should acknowledge the task is more than should be asked of any one developer. Success will take strong partnerships and opportunities for organic development within a well-considered framework.

Last, we have yet to truly take advantage of the White River or prepare ourselves for the opportunity to interact with it once its ongoing cleanup is complete. While there is distance between the east and west banks, it is not the river that has been a separator as much as the kind of development we have placed on it, including the levees.

Flood protection is essential, without a doubt. Yet, the GM site represents one of the last remaining places along the White River where it is possible to return the floodplain to a more natural state and embrace the river as an asset. Ohio State University and the city of Columbus are doing such things along the Olentangy River, turning marginal areas into prime real estate. A forward thinking, 40-year plan will see this as an opportunity for an amenity like no other in the city.•


Gallagher is an urban designer with Ratio.

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