Ratio principal Bill Browne talks Pan Am Plaza project

Bill Browne says designing a convention center hotel is unique because “you have people sort of [pouring] out of these buildings and going to the convention center all the time.” (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

The 40-story Signia Hilton hotel planned as part of the redevelopment of Pan Am Plaza would be a big addition to the downtown Indianapolis skyline.

The hotel is part of a $550 million project by Kite Realty Group Trust that also includes an expansion of the Indiana Convention Center and—eventually—a second, 600-room Hilton-branded hotel.

The hotels would be owned by Kite and managed by Hilton, while the $125 million publicly funded convention center expansion would be operated by the Capital Improvement Board of Marion County.

The project is being designed by Indianapolis firm Ratio Architects, which designed an expansion of the convention center that was completed in 2011.

Bill Browne, the founder and president of Ratio, spoke with IBJ about the challenges associated with the development and what the firm hopes the payoff will be for the city.

You have a direct involvement in the design of the project, correct?

Yes, I’m personally involved with this and have been since the beginning. I have a great interest in this project, obviously. It’s such an important project for our firm and for Kite, [but it’s also] incredibly important for the convention center and the community.

So, how long has Ratio been involved in the Pan Am redevelopment?

Well, quite honestly, we’ve been working on this for a number of years with Kite. After they purchased the Pan Am property [in 2014] … we were actually working on some design ideas—even before the request for inquiries came out from the city of Indianapolis in 2018.

Once that came out, they reengaged us and we started moving forward on the project [that the city and the CIB ultimately selected].

Bill Browne says the Signia, in center background, is designed to fit in with other downtown high-rises. (Rendering courtesy of Kite Realty Group Trust)

How did the white curtain glass design for the Signia come to be, and how do you see the building influencing the skyline of downtown?

We recognized early on that, because of the footprint of the site, the building would have to be taller—it would be standing out on its own and have an opportunity to have a nice architectural presence.

With the white glass, it creates an opportunity for the building to catch the light, while contrasting a little bit with the brick and stone buildings that are [nearby]. Looking at the other high-rises, we thought we could put a brighter element in the skyline that would settle in pretty nicely with the composition of the [other] high-rise buildings. What’s also important for us is how it meets the ground and ultimately creates the wonderful pedestrian spaces that we have as a part of the building.

As president of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission, you play a key role in defining the look of historic sections of downtown, including the Wholesale District, near where the hotels will be built. How does that background influence the design?

There’s no question the Wholesale District is a very walkable place. So we recognized immediately that, whatever we did, we really wanted to make sure that the podium level of the building is scaled properly and really has a lot of pedestrian experiences, so people feel comfortable walking next to a tall building.

We’ve worked very hard to improve … the streetscape in a way that is very welcoming and very approachable. One of the things that we’ve done relative to that is, instead of having the drop-off and pickup for the hotel along the street, we’ve put it underneath the ballroom.

Were there unique challenges associated with the project compared to other hotel developments you’ve worked on downtown?

Certainly. This is a new brand for Hilton. The Signia is only going into Orlando, Atlanta and Indianapolis. And so Hilton has just developed the standards for this all-new brand—it’s not something they’ve actually built yet.

Hilton is trying to find this balance between their standard Hilton room and the [upscale] Conrad Hilton room. It’s a room that needs to feel like it’s not [just] an overnight kind of stay, because you’re there for a few days.

When you’re designing a hotel specifically with a convention center in mind, you have to think about the spaces a little bit differently, because you’re now talking about 800 or more guests in a single hotel … so you have people sort of [pouring] out of these buildings and going to the convention center all the time.

Any architectural design [project] has its challenges from an aesthetic standpoint, and this is no different in that regard. We are building a convention center expansion that has a relationship with a hotel.

Your firm, Ratio, designed the convention center expansion that was completed in 2011. How does that carry over to this project?

So, having had the opportunity to design that phase of the convention center expansion and now doing this, it’s a little bit easier because we understand what we did there a few years ago.

For a lot of the conventioneers, it’s all about the interior, because they’re going to be going from one hall to the next, to a ballroom, to a meeting room, and so forth. We’ve tried to bring some of the materiality of the [existing] convention center over to the project … so it feels like the two are coming together.

What is your favorite part of pulling this project together; is there something that really stood out to you during the process?

Well, we’re not done, so it’s still pretty fun. As you would imagine, a whole team of people are contributing to the design of this project. But what’s really fun is, you don’t often get the opportunity to design almost a whole city block.

That’s probably the most exciting thing—when you have the opportunity to come into the urban environment and affect an entire city block and what you’re going to be doing there. I think tackling a project of this scale, with this kind of complexity and knowing that you’re going to produce a building that is going to be seen on the skyline for many years … that’s the exciting part of this project.

How many people at your firm are working on this project?

When we started out, we had just a handful of us—two or three, four of us working on it. Recently, we’ve been upwards of around 12 people architecturally, but we’ve actually had over 100 people working on the project when you start looking at all of the structural engineering and civil engineering and mechanical and all the specialty consultants and everything else.

Any project goes through what we describe as a bell curve. As you do design work, you have a smaller team. Then, as you move into doing the drawings for the construction, you start ramping up the scale of the team. As that gets completed and you move into the construction phase, the design team tends to start ramping back.•

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