Editorial: Don’t allow Waterside debacle to derail promise of GM site

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

It’s difficult to accept at face value Ambrose Property Group’s abrupt decision to pull the plug on Waterside, the much-anticipated $1.4 billion redevelopment of the 103-acre former GM Stamping Plant site across the White River from downtown.

Citing a desire to “reposition the firm to focus on e-commerce and industrial development,” Ambrose seemed to suddenly and cavalierly turn its back on a vision that the company and others who care about the city’s future had spent years creating.

The property’s potential to expand downtown’s footprint by transforming the west side of the river has been apparent for years, long before Ambrose was chosen as the master developer in 2017. Other ideas for the site—the city’s new jail and courts complex and an amphitheater—fell by the wayside before Ambrose charged in with a bold plan that seemed to match the site’s potential.

Ambrose officials say they hope another developer can come in and execute the vision, but the early signs aren’t good. The company has already sold a portion of the land to the nearby Indianapolis Zoo, which is likely to install a surface parking lot. If Ambrose sells off the rest of the property piecemeal through its broker JLL, the promise of Waterside is likely to be washed away by a hodgepodge of parking lots, apartment complexes and other run-of-the-mill projects.

The announcement of Waterside’s demise came less than a week before a juried competition for the project that was to have involved an impressive lineup of international design firms—Hood Design Studio of Oakland, California; SCAPE out of New York City; and Snohetta, with offices in Oslo, Norway, and New York. The firms worked with Ambrose, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Exhibit Columbus and neighbors of the site to formulate their plans.

The organizers of the competition said it is postponed until the future of the property becomes clearer. It’s up to Ambrose and the city, which will have to let Ambrose out of its redevelopment agreement, to make sure that happens and that the site’s potential isn’t wasted.

In a sign that the city is committed to Waterside’s vision, it has threatened to take back the site by eminent domain if Ambrose won’t quickly work on a deal to put the property back in city control.

It’s unfortunate that Ambrose, a firm with a positive reputation before the Waterside debacle, is in this position. But when Ambrose was chosen to buy the property based on lofty promises, the developer got more than land and an opportunity to turn a profit. It took over responsibility for perhaps the most important redevelopment site in the state.

Perhaps the old GM property will end up in the hands of Ersal Ozdimir, the local developer who owns the Indy Eleven professional soccer team and is searching for a site that could accommodate a $150 million stadium surrounded by a $400 million mixed-use development.

That’s the only plan known to the public that would come close to living up to Waterside’s potential. Surely there are other developers up to the task. Ambrose can save face by working diligently with the city to make sure the opportunity that Waterside represented isn’t wasted.•

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