Neighbors file suit to block proposed $61M Willows redevelopment

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A rendering of apartments proposed for the Elements multifamily residential project north of Broad Ripple. (Image courtesy of J.C. Hart Co. Inc.)

Neighbors of a proposed apartment and condominium project near Broad Ripple have filed a lawsuit in response to a city commission’s decision last month to preliminarily approve the developer’s request to rezone the land.

Four plaintiffs—Oxbow Estates Homeowners Association, Spirit Lake Co-owners Association and a pair of individuals with property abutting the project—filed suit late Friday in Marion County Superior Court.

The group opposes the $61 million Elements multifamily project planned by developers J.C. Hart Co. and Chase Development (both of which are named as defendants) to redevelop the Willows Event center at 6729 Westfield Blvd., into a 192-unit apartment community and 16 condominiums fronting Spirit Lake, north of Broad Ripple.

The original project, introduced in late 2021, was met with fierce resistance from neighboring property owners and others in the nearby Nora area. The developers ultimately withdrew the project in mid-2022. In mid-2023, the firms came back to the table with a modified plan, but have continued to face opposition from those living nearby, including some elected officials.

In addition to the developers, the lawsuit names as defendants property owner Evergreen LLC and the Metropolitan Development Commission, which voted 8-0 on Dec. 20 to approve the latest rezoning request.

That vote followed an hour-long public hearing during which representatives for J.C. Hart Co. and the homeowners associations traded interpretations of specific zoning issues, including traffic flow, building height and density, among others. Staff with the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development said in its report it was in favor of the project.

According to the lawsuit, the neighborhood groups and their co-petitioners—residents Thomas Durkin and Steve Yeager—allege the MDC voted in favor of the project having not considered specifics of a 2003 set of commitments for property around Spirit Lake, including at least a portion of the proposed development site.

Those commitments, which the developer has sought to have modified as part of its rezoning process, were created following the development of the Spirit Lake condominiums and limit density to 1.94 units per acre—well below what the proposal calls for now.

The petitioners allege a lack of consideration for those commitments “would violate their property rights” because those commitments can be enforced by any of the property owners within either two properties, or 660 feet, of land being considered for rezoning.

The lawsuit maintains that had the MDC considered the terms of those initial commitments, it would have quickly denied J.C. Hart Co. and Chase Development’s proposal.

Denying the request “was the only reasonable decision that the MDC could have reached,” the petition reads.

Aside from the lawsuit, the rezoning matter is expected to be considered for final adoption Feb. 5 by City-County Council. However, first-term council member Brienne Delaney, D-District 2, has told IBJ she will request the case be heard separately from other rezoning matters as part of an effort to reverse course on approval.

John Kautzman is an attorney and a representative for the Oxbow Estates neighborhood group. He said the lawsuit, which remonstrators of the project had 30 days to file, followed unsuccessful efforts both before and after the MDC’s decision to find a compromise with the developers.

“We came up on the 30th day and we had no choice but to file suit to preserve at least the ability to go forward with [legal action] if we can’t get this either worked out or reversed by the City-County Council,” he said.

Both the developer and the neighbors said they have made concessions in recent weeks to find a resolution. J.C. Hart Co. said it was willing to forego the condominium element and create two acres of green space in its place. It also would also remove access to the site from a neighboring private roadway at the request of nearby residents.

The new density number is a moderate change from a mid-2022 plan featuring three apartment buildings with 209 units and contains the same townhouse configuration. It is a significant reduction from the original proposal that was first floated in late 2021: a single 238-unit apartment building and nine townhouse buildings with 18 condominiums.

Neighbors, who believe the appropriate density according to city code would be closer to 40 to 45 total units, said they are willing to concede up to 144 units on the site, but have continued to ask for a reduced height to the apartment buildings and better traffic management along Westfield Boulevard.

An overhead rendering of the proposed Elements multifamily residential project north of Broad Ripple. (Image courtesy of J.C. Hart Co. Inc.)

An updated traffic study that was commissioned by the development team before it refiled the project determined the project would not adversely affect traffic flow along Westfield Boulevard.

Kautzman said while there remains an impasse on those issues, neighbors are still willing to discuss a remedy. He said the neighbors are “confident” the City-County Council will reverse the MDC’s decision.

“We didn’t say ‘Screw you guys, we’re not talking anymore,’” he said. “We just [affirmed] we had a deadline to preserve our claims and we met that deadline. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not willing to talk, because we still are.”

One of the largest points of contention for neighbors is the project includes the adjacent Spirit Lake in its density calculations. While city code allows developers to include areas such as lakes and ponds in determining density, Spirit Lake was already included in calculations for the Spirit Lake Condominiums when that project was built on the other side of the lake in 2002.

Considering the body of water, the project would use 21.4 acres for a density of fewer than 10 units per acre. Without Spirit Lake, the figure is closer to 26 units per acre, across about eight acres.

The county’s comprehensive plan generally calls for one to five units per acre for multifamily developments in the area. But the Marion County Land Use Plan Pattern Book also encourages higher density projects in areas of close proximity to greenways, such as the Monon Trail. Recent iterations of the proposal call for sidewalks and crosswalks as part of the project, as well as a connector path to the trail on the other side of Westfield Boulevard.

Delaney’s opposition to the project is a shift from the supportive position of now-former council member Keith Potts, whom she was elected to replace as representative for District 2. Also opposed to the project is Councilor John Barth, D-District 7, whose district includes a small portion of the neighborhood at the center of the controversy, as well as State Rep. Carey Hamilton, D-District 87, and State Sen. Fady Quaddora, D-District 30.

John Hart, chairman of J.C. Hart, called it “unfortunate” that remonstrators filed a lawsuit “rather than to respect the city’s land use approval process, especially after the remonstrators asked the district councillor to take the matter to the full City-County Council for a rehearing.”

“All relevant City agencies, including planners, engineers, the then-sitting district councillor, and the MDC, have determined that the project should move forward,” Hart said in an email. “By filing suit, the remonstrators demonstrate their lack of sincerity in reaching a viable resolution and their intention to ignore a favorable decision by the City-County Council. The remonstrator’s claims are meritless and are simply an attempt to delay a good project. This suit will be handled in due course through the court system. In the meantime, we hope the City-County Council will reject efforts to overturn the MDC’s unanimous favorable decision when the matter is considered on Feb. 5.”

The DMD declined to comment.

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32 thoughts on “Neighbors file suit to block proposed $61M Willows redevelopment

  1. Just add these to the two giant apartment developments at 96th & Westfield Blvd. These will cause more of a traffic nightmare going into Broad Ripple.

    1. 7-3 may not be good working hours for lots of people. Pretty rude to tell everyone else to make their lives conform,, no matter how well that might work for them, to the hours dictated by a substantial development in an area not suitable for such a development.

    2. How exactly will apartments at 96th and Westfield have a significant impact on Broad Ripple? No one in their right mind would use Westfield to go any farther south than 86th before cutting over to Keystone or College.

    1. Actually…that’s highly doubtful. Hart’s public statements here do not reflect good-faith discussions.

      The neighbors filed suit on the last possible day to preserve their legal rights, should the CCC not vote to reject this proposal. Which will likely happen.

      It was never a good proposal. Should’ve never seen the light of day. Counting the lake in density calculations, for Spirit Lake and the new project, is double-dipping.

      Probably 15-16 votes on the council to reject this rezoning. Which is a drastic rezoning–it involves breaking commitments as well as variances well beyond normal scope.

  2. Gosh, a few more apartments. How does an actual city deal with it? Oh right, by not relying solely on cars for transit.

    But these zoning lawsuits are ridiculous. Zoning is a scam – why should the absolute worst people on earth (your neighbors) get to tell you what you can build?

    1. Except that’s not how zoning works. That’s how the flawed, and typically under qualified, Board and Commission members work. There is a legal framework that is all but ignored in Marion County when it comes to land use.

    2. Murray R, how many boards are you on? The people who serve on City boards are volunteers; they get paid nothing.

    3. Robert, what does that have anything to do with what I said? Seriously. Think about that for more than two seconds. Service on boards and commissions isn’t compulsory, and if you can’t exercise the duty in alignment with enabling legislation, why accept?

  3. Broad Ripple is no longer a village. Too many apartment buildings and high rise buildings. It’s totally lost its charm. Fortunately, I live in SoBro, far enough south to not be directly affected by the sprawling development and the road construction. But I totally understand why the neighbors and the Councilpersons are opposed to this project. Enough already!

    1. There are villages all over the world with a higher population density than Broad Ripple.

    2. Broad Ripple loses it’s charm every time gunfire erupts on a Saturday night. The solution to the sad row of waning bars occupying Broad Ripple Avenue is livable, walkable density to bring residents and sustainable businesses to the village.

  4. Disappointing there are so many cavalier statements being made. Before you think increasing Westfield Boulevard traffic is not an issue, live there. We have dealt with so much construction along Westfield and Broad Ripple Avenue over the last couple of years it is getting pretty tiresome to keep finding new ways to get places.

    1. Funny how everyone complains about the roads but when there is a project to improve them people complain. Broad Ripple wanted all of the recent improvements so it should be grateful it is actually getting public investment while other neighborhoods wait.

  5. They’re all road projects at the end of the day…it’s all infrastructure. Build new apartments, you’ll likely need new roads at some point to support the additional traffic. Have lousy roads, and people don’t want to move to your part of town. Businesses die off, schools deterioorate, housing stock deteriorates.

    Why can my neighbors have a voice on what you build? Because your project may destroy the value of their property. What gives you the right to diminish the value of their property?

    Alternative public transport? Probably not viable for this area. Other than buses.

    1. Actually, the developers worked with neighbors worked with neighbors for two years to find reasonable accommodations. Including density. And counting the lake area once, for density calculations.

      Those accommodations become commitments. Which are recorded. Now, this new developer seeks to amend or change the zoning contrary to some (not all) of those commitments. The new councilperson doesn’t have the same knee-jerk developer bent that the former councilperson had.

  6. This project is not particularly more dense than most of the newer 4-5 story apartment projects with garage space underneath. Apartment projects don’t create the traffic problems that commercial projects do because people don’t all leave and return at the same time. The flexible work schedules that many companies allow have improved this greatly.

    Unfortunately the city desperately needs to create density in order to increase the tax base. I’m sure that many of the neighbors understand this but it’s just a case of NIMBY!

    1. +1 That’s all this has ever been about. I lived in BRip for 5 years. The traffic argument is a joke.

  7. Where the City creates density by multi-family construction can change neighborhoods and property values. Build a large development at Keystone and 62nd, say where Hedlunds and the car wash and that little strip mall are (which I’m not advocating, there is no place like Hedlunds) and traffic density is less an issue than on Westfield Boulevard, which was never intended to handle lots of traffic. Is it NIMBY? Yes, but with a real issue…traffic patterns and overuse. Westfield was laid out to be a local connector between Broad Ripple, Nora, and Carmel. It was never intended to handle a lot of traffic. The curves just north of BRV, south this development, were a right of passage for teenage boys with dad’s car…our own Dead Man’s Curve. Now people want to make it a major route.
    The developers of this project are the same family that owned the lakes, and added the pavillion over local objections, then added the condos. The folks who owned the houses on the small private road to the north of the lake protested but were placated. Now, the family is hoping all forgot about their promises. If this is built, the traffic will become such a mess it will drop the local property values.

  8. I’m not privy to their traffic study, but I don’t believe that 200 apartments will create a significant change to the traffic. It would be ideal if the project had a second means of egress and the southern most building was a story shorter being adjacent to the Oxbow project.

  9. So if my estimate of total cars is correct, and it’s just a guess that 200 apartments will have at least two adults of driving age, and most will have multiple cars per apartment (because, again, Indy doesn’t do mass/public transit) if you average that traffic through a day, using one driveway, for a 16 hour day (7am to 11pm) its between 18 and 25 cars per hour, depending on the total cars. Roughly a car every 2.5 to 3.5 minutes. If you shorten the day to 7am to 9pm, the number jumps to 21-28 cars per hour. That assumes a regular flow of traffic with no two cars wanting to enter or leave at the same time. At peak hours, morning and evening rush, this combination of cars from the project plus traffic on the road already, including the condo project across the street, will likely make a mess of Westfield Boulevard.

    1. Agree. The blind curve is a problem as folks come around their pretty fast. A number of years ago I got hit head on as I was waiting to enter Oxbow.

  10. Two traffic studies were done. The neighbors didn’t like the results of the developer’s study so did their own which then yielded results even worse for their argument. Per traffic study metrics, this project is not even close to a traffic issue.

  11. Further, instead of arbitrarily stating how dangerous the road is, DPW considers it a safe thoroughfare with only 2 (maybe it was 3) accidents in the last several years.
    The traffic and safety arguments are not valid.

    1. Lastly, JC Hart does not build condos. They are apartments developers and owners. Chick FIL A does not sell hamburgers.

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