EDITORIAL: High bar set by scrapped 21c hotel project

April 1, 2017

The failed deal to bring a 21c hotel to the Old City Hall at Ohio and Alabama streets is disappointing on at least two fronts.

First, it’s a wasted opportunity to find an appropriate reuse for a unique historic building, a challenge that has stumped more than a few city administrations. Also, it removes from the drawing board a well-designed addition to the building that might have helped the city emerge from its architectural-design rut.

Cobbling together a new deal that checks both of those boxes will be a big challenge for the administration of Mayor Joe Hogsett, which recently pulled the plug on the $55 million project unveiled two years ago by Louisville-based 21c Museum Hotels LLC and the administration of Hogsett’s predecessor, Greg Ballard.

The Old City Hall would have housed the hotel’s lobby, a free-admission contemporary art museum and offices for local not-for-profits. A 150-room hotel tower designed by New York-based Deborah Berke & Partners was to be built on a vacant city-owned parking lot immediately north of the building.

The city had agreed to provide a $9.1 million loan for the project, but 21c’s inability to secure additional financing and guarantee the start of construction in the first four months of this year caused the city to terminate the deal. With downtown enjoying a recent boom in developer interest, the city plans to solicit new bids for the site in the next 30 days.

Surely there will be healthy interest from developers, and we encourage the city to be picky in selecting the winning bid. Old City Hall, which has been without a permanent use since the Indiana State Museum moved out in 2001, is a unique property that recently came under protection of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission. IHPC has jurisdiction over both exterior and interior alterations to the building; carving it up into apartments or condos should be off the table.

As for the vacant lot that goes along with the historic building, the city should demand a higher level of design than we’ve grown accustomed to. The apartment building boom that continues unabated has served downtown well by increasing housing options, but there’s a sameness to the designs that cheapens the downtown streetscape. The proposed 21c was an exception.

Now that the 21c plan is history, it’s up to the city to demand a replacement worthy of the site.•


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