DMD recommends approval for controversial $61M Willows project

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The $53 million apartment component would consist of three buildings totaling 238 units. (Rendering courtesy of J.C. Hart Co.)

The Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development on Thursday said it will recommend approval for a controversial residential real estate development north of Broad Ripple.

The agency said the redevelopment of The Willows Event Center property at 6729 Westfield Blvd. into more than 250 apartments and town homes should be permitted to move forward, despite pushback from neighbors concerned about the project’s potential impact on traffic and overall size.

The redevelopment would be a $61 million partnership between Willows owner Evergreen LLC, Carmel developer J.C. Hart Co. and Indianapolis-based Chase Development.

The development team is seeking a rezone of the property to allow for the mixed-use project, with the city’s Metropolitan Development Commission set to consider the matter during its May 18 meeting. The MDC typically follows the DMD’s recommendation.

The $53 million apartment component from J.C. Hart would consist of three buildings totaling 238 units and 303 parking spaces along Westfield Boulevard, just north of an oxbow—or U-shape—in the White River. Apartments would range from $1,200 to $2,100 per month.

Chase Development would spend at least $8 million to build the town houses, which would range from three to four stories, have two-car garages and cost $700,000 to $1 million. Those homes would front North Dawson Lake Drive, along the southern edge of a 13-acre pond.

Evergreen plans to contribute the land to the development, as well as some cash, with plans to remain a long-term partner and to continue taking care of the pond and a green space that would be created by the development.

DMD’s decision to recommend approval follows a negative reaction from neighboring property owners, who have claimed the project is too large and isn’t in line with the Marion County Comprehensive Plan, which determines best uses for property depending on proximity to amenities, major roadways and existing neighborhoods.

In its report, DMD notes the project is larger than the comprehensive plan generally calls for, but that it is a more appropriate use than the event center there now. The classification has an upper threshold of about five units per acre for single-family dwellings, but it also allows for apartment and town house developments, which tend to have much higher densities.

“The proposal varies from the plan in density, footprint area of the largest building and the location of parking in the front yard,” the staff report said.

The report notes the project would be near other apartment and town house developments and would be situated on a roadway that could withstand the additional traffic volumes. It also pointed to a study commissioned by the development team that found the project wouldn’t adversely affect traffic.

The nod for approval also follows a commitment from Evergreen to include pedestrian infrastructure along Westfield Boulevard, which currently includes very little sidewalk space. The development is expected to include new sidewalks and crosswalks along Westfield Boulevard, as well as a connection to the Monon Trail.

As it stands, the project’s density is just under 12 units per acre when taking into account the adjacent Spirit Lake pond. City code allows developers to include amenity areas, such as lakes and ponds, in their density calculations.

But remonstrators have objected to the idea of including the pond in a density calculation because it skews the numbers—the figure is closer to 31 units per acre without the pond—and because it was already included in calculations for the Spirit Lake condominiums when they were built in 2002.

About 100 residents sent letters to DMD indicating they were opposed to the project, while only three individuals sent letters in support. Some residents sent more than one letter addressing the matter, and nearly 500 remonstrators signed a petition pushing back on the project.

In a statement, the Marrott Island Community Association—an unofficial neighborhood organization that has led efforts challenging the project—said it was disappointed with the staff’s decision, but plans to continue its efforts to get the project scaled down or scrapped.

“Our unified coalition of neighborhoods is shocked and angry that the City has recommended approval of this petition,” said John Kautzman, neighborhood coalition member. “The City’s own planning staff cites several instances where the petition does not comply with the Comprehensive Plan that the City adopted in 2018. Disregarding the Comprehensive Plan sets a poor precedent for future development decisions and will negatively impact every resident of our city. Why have a plan if you’re not going to follow it? We look forward to presenting our strong opposition to the Commission on May 18.”

Even if the commission were to break from the staff recommendation and vote against the project, the proposal would remain alive. It still needs affirmation from the City-County Council, no matter the MDC’s decision.

If the commission rejects the project, the council can “call down” the MDC ruling, allowing city officials to meet with remonstrators and the development team in a manner similar to mediation.

If no resolution is reached, the council can vote on the measure at its next public meeting. Without a call-down, the council will vote on the MDC decision as part of a larger group of zoning requests.

In its own statement, the development team said it was appreciative of the city’s consideration and is eager to move the project forward.

“We appreciate the depth and breadth of staff review,” said John Hart, CEO of J.C. Hart. “Our team worked diligently to meet their rigorous criteria for support. We also listened to neighbors and revised the plan over these last several months to address many of their comments. We look forward to presenting our proposal to the Metropolitan Development Commission.”

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13 thoughts on “DMD recommends approval for controversial $61M Willows project

  1. Who does the Marriott Island Community Association think they are? It’s not a state or national park. It’s not a protected wetland> it’s a tiny lake next to Broad Ripple. Every inch of any property near Broad Ripple is going to get developed. It’s just a matter of time.

  2. Robert, do you work for the developers? No one else has been positive about this egregious project. By the way, IBJ. It is not a “pond” as the developers term it in order to minimize its scope and function. It is a real living lake that flows into the
    next door lake and both flow right into the White River. This project will degrade the watershed.

    1. No, I just respect property rights and the ability of a landowner – a developer in this case – to do what they want with their land. If you don’t like it, buy the land from the developer. It’s that simple.

      And then there is the reality we’re facing in Central Indiana that population density is too low to sustain our infrastructure through property taxes and the only way to fix reduce the amount of space dedicated for cars and increase the amount of space dedicated for people. This project is in the best public interest of the average Marion County taxpayer. Your pond views or whatever you’re trying to protect are not.

    2. Agreed Robert. The neighbors are just feeling entitled to something they can’t control.

  3. It’s a good Start!!! It’s plenty!!! Of other spots on the list to build on also and They will mostly all pass!!! Time to grow and have diverse housing options all over the region!!!! New Day!!!! Let’s Get It!!!!

  4. Doesn’t greater density put more strain on infrastructure? What about sewers and drainage further south of Broad Ripple with all this development? They will eventually have to widen Westfield if this keeps up, then see what kind of objections follow.

    1. It’s the other way around. Low-density developments require more sustaining infrastructure, require people to drive (more cars with each person driving farther average distances), and require more money per person to maintain. One of the big reasons we struggle to pay for things in Marion County is because our population density is too low for the amount of infrastructure that we have.

  5. Scott G. ~ Traffic is like water. It seeks the path of least resistance. If motorists conclude there is too much traffic on Westfield Boulevard, they will take a different route.

  6. Broad Ripple is going concrete, it had to happen. Couldn’t remain a swamp forever. It’s still lovely, and the best neighborhood in town, imo.

    1. Very true. It’s also very bikeable/walkable. They keep throwing money at the Monon Trail for a reason!