Laymen could be forgiven for not immediately grasping the economic potential of the Box Factory building, a 135,000-square-foot monolith that was built in 1920 for the U.S. Corrugated Box Co., which later morphed into Lacy Distributing.
Located at 1411 Roosevelt Ave., just north of the Mass Ave Cultural District, it sat idle for the last couple of decades, full of dust, outdated equipment and blown-out windows.
But over the last two years, the Stenz Construction Corp., Third Street Ventures and Pure Development have undertaken its $25 million renovation.
Finding tenants for a moldering structure in a forgotten corner of an economically stagnant former industrial district might sound like a herculean task. Except that it wasn’t. At least not in the case of one of the Box Factory’s first (and without doubt its biggest) tenants—North Mass Boulder, a roughly 50,000-square-foot, multistory fitness center and restaurant that opened June 19.
“We got a tip about the building from our real estate broker,” said Indianapolis-based North Mass Boulder co-owner Elliot Steward. “We walked in and were just blown away. We hunted all over the country for a space like this. You just don’t find them very often.”
Steward found the building so enticing for the same reason many other tenants, including the law firm Lewis Wagner, did. The location, if you can look past its gritty industrial history, has a lot going for it.
“I needed to be located near a growing millennial population,” Steward said. “I needed good highway access, I needed 50,000 square feet, and I needed it to be affordable. When you stack all those things up, you’re talking about the sort of building that really just doesn’t exist in most cities around the country.”
A glance at a map explains why he’s so confident about attracting millennials. The Box Factory sits smack in the middle of an area that’s become known as North Mass Creative and Commercial Corridor. As the name implies, the approximately 500-acre site is just north of Mass Ave and a stone’s throw from the new Bottleworks District campus.
Pure Development, a mixed-use developer based in Indianapolis but with projects around the country, became interested in the area after a 2014 study by the Urban Land Institute said it had significant redevelopment potential.
Of particular interest was the area nearest Mass Ave, which is bisected by the Monon Trail and Pogues Run Trail and sits tantalizingly close to the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. That 40-acre parcel (which the developers have renamed NOMA), has been acquired by the Box Factory development team, which plans to turn it into a mixed-use development with the Box Factory as one of its first elements.
“We’re excited to reconnect this area to the adjacent neighborhoods,” said Pure Development principal Adam Seger. “There’s a nexus to connect to everyone, and to connect this area back to downtown and to the Bottleworks District.”
The reason North Mass Ave hasn’t gotten any love before now is because it’s largely cut off from surrounding, more vibrant areas. It’s bordered to the south by active railroad tracks, and cut off from the more fashionable portions of Mass Ave by the interstates 65/70 north split. However, the split is being reconstructed and there are plans for long-neglected Lewis Street, which connects the area to Mass Ave, to be improved.
Antone Najem, founder of Third Street Ventures, which is working with Pure on three additional projects, said the North Mass District area was attractive in part because it was already growing organically and he’s confident it will grow and transform “into another one of Indianapolis’ great neighborhoods.”
‘A clean slate’
The toughest task in the property’s development was getting a former manufacturing facility up to modern standards. On the plus side, the interior features all the exposed brick, weathered concrete and massive support beams any millennial could wish for. On the minus side, the building had been more or less open to the elements for decades, and didn’t exactly lend itself to an easy conversion.
“It started out as a manufacturing facility a hundred years ago,” Ansty said. “Definitely, no one back then thought that, a century later, it would be an office building and a climbing gym. So we had to get it up to a modern standard.”
Much of the building’s wiring (at least the copper stuff) had already been stolen by scavengers. Which actually was more of an advantage than a problem.
“It was almost like starting with a clean slate,” Ansty said. “It was kind of nice, in a way, to be in a building that had already been basically stripped out.”
The fact that pretty much every window in the place had either been broken or fallen out was less of a plus.
“Really, there were no windows in the building when we started,” Ansty said. “That was probably the biggest challenge. It had been left to the elements for 20-plus years, and was in really horrible condition when we started. Luckily, the majority of the roof was still keeping water out. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which meant the developers were required to be careful about what they kept and discarded, and to retain some historical features. One of the most unique was turning a giant old freight elevator into a conference room. And some old wood flooring was repurposed as a bar in North Mass Boulder’s in-house eatery, the Top Out Café.
Beyond that, the building’s exposed concrete walls and exposed joist and beam support system stayed on display.
“We just left it, because that’s something that people actually go out of their way to re-create,” Ansty said.
The Box Factory is just one portion of the NOMA “campus” rising on the development group’s 40-acre parcel. If things go as planned, its mix of new and remodeled structures will help spearhead both the area’s reconnection to the city and its transformation from a downtrodden former industrial zone into an advanced office and residential area.
According to James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, just a mile east of the Box Factory, the process is already well underway.
“That corridor has been on an upward trajectory for about seven or eight years,” he said. “The Box Factory is really going to help activate a lot of other really important development and reuse in a spot that was kind of a historic jobs center for the community. So we’re extremely excited to see what they’re doing.”
When the area’s industrial enterprises left several decades ago, so did much of the population in nearby neighborhoods. Though the area’s industrial district doesn’t exactly lend itself to tony shops and eateries, it’s perfect for high-paying office jobs.
“For the longest time, the near-east-side community has dreamed about development that’s not exactly like Mass Ave, but that matches its vitality,” Taylor said. “And I think we’re beginning to see that happen in a number of different ways.”
Steward, who’s seen about 500 patrons come through his doors in the weeks since North Mass Boulder opened, is already sold.
“You need to buy property in this area before you can’t buy it anymore,” he said. “This whole area is going to get super-developed. I think it’s an awesome, edgy little pocket, which is what I love about it.”•