Editorial: Treat Waterside rezoning with care

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

In the midst of a pandemic and social upheaval, the routine business of running the city goes on. One item of unfinished business is the not-so-routine implosion of the vision—once shared by city government and Ambrose Property Group—of expanding downtown by developing the former General Motors stamping plant property on the west side of the White River into a $1.4 billion office, residential and retail hub.

The once-promising Waterside project Ambrose and the city were to have collaborated on officially fell apart last September, when Ambrose announced it was scrapping the 103-acre development and would attempt to sell the land it bought for $3 million in 2018 with the city’s blessing. As IBJ has reported, the developer’s seemingly abrupt about-face devolved into a legal battle with the city over control of the real estate, a case now in court-ordered mediation.

In the midst of the dispute, Ambrose last month asked the city to rezone the entire property for light industrial uses, including artisan and light manufacturing and warehouse, wholesale and distribution operations.

“E-commerce and logistics are becoming more vital than ever, especially during COVID-19,” Ambrose Development Manager Derek Naber said in a written statement at the time the company went public with the request. “[Modifying] the zoning of Waterside could help seamlessly intertwine residential, commercial and industrial land use, and create more jobs for the neighborhoods near the Waterside property.” Ambrose noted that it still wants to sell the property and that, based on feedback it has gotten from potential buyers, allowing industrial uses would make the property more marketable.

At first blush, Ambrose’s request seems preposterous. After getting the land for a song and using a compelling narrative and slick images to sell Waterside’s potential to transform the west side of downtown, Ambrose, having abandoned the project, wants the city’s blessing to sell the land for industrial uses?

Developing the site with light industrial buildings is a drastic departure from the original vision. But broadening the uses allowed at the site could be beneficial in the long run and might better meet market demand. It wouldn’t necessarily end up looking like an industrial park and could still resemble the original vision. But would it?

The developer that ends up with the site might buy into its mixed-use potential and work collaboratively with the city and neighbors as each component of the development is vetted and approved. Or that developer could fight the city every step of the way, doing only the minimum to win approvals for individual projects that collectively wouldn’t realize Waterside’s potential.

At this point, trust is the issue. Unfortunately, Ambrose hasn’t given the city much reason to trust its motives. Almost overnight, the company’s public image seemed to transform from solid corporate citizen entrusted with one of the most important redevelopment projects in city history to opportunistic operator only looking out for itself.

The idea of adding light industrial to the mix shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but the city must tread carefully in considering Ambrose’s rezoning request. Until a trusted partner is identified, the city is the only party in a position to safeguard Waterside’s original vision.•


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One thought on “Editorial: Treat Waterside rezoning with care

  1. Industrial use is a terrible idea and completely against the vision created for this prime area. Indy, bite the bullet already, admit the mistake you made in selling this property to the unethical and shady Ambrose, buy the land back and start over with a real company. And next time, put into the contract the necessary protections to prevent this from happening again.