This may quickly devolve into an outright rant, so let me first say: this is my opinion only, and my angle/ agenda is for the highest good of two historic neighborhoods that I love, respect, frequently walk and daily inhabit. I am not an urban planner, not a zoning expert, nor would the inspiration for my current ire be my choice of business in the entrepreneurial world, despite the untold millions in potential income. What I do have: a copy of the Herron-Morton Place Historic Area Plan and the Old Northside Historic Area Preservation Plan, this website, passion, oh… and chutzpah. So, if my understanding is incorrect, please feel free to set me straight, because there are so many moving parts, I question whether ANY one person could keep it all straight.
Last Wednesday, November 2, 2011, as I’ve done so many times before, I made the pilgrimage into the proverbial heart of our fair metropolis, where dreams are realized or shattered–the City County Building–to attend the latest meeting at the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC). And while I greatly admire and respect the commissioners, and staff, I am profoundly disappointed in the decision that was reached on that fateful night and view it as the most negative and egregious development to be approved in the area in the 8+ years I’ve lived under their jurisdiction.
First a little background: IHPC exists to help “preserve the character and fabric of historically significant areas and structures for all present and future citizens of Marion County, Indiana.” They provide “technical assistance on the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures or areas,” and are a division of the Department of Metropolitan Development, which oversees planning, zoning, development, housing, neighborhoods, etc. It seems to me, that much like my opinion of most political arms, the right hand and left hand are not always working in concert. If they were, how would there be so many inconsistencies?
When you live in a locally designated historic district, such as Herron-Morton Place or Old Northside, you are expected to abide by certain rules that help retain, as much as possible, the original character of the remaining historic homes and new and infill development should be sensitive to its surroundings. Purchasing an historic home within one of these districts should not be taken lightly: for you are not only a home owner, but a steward of a piece of Indianapolis’ past (and it’s not for the faint of heart). Inherent to that choice is a higher cost in replacing or repairing architectural elements, and the need to consult with IHPC staff prior to ANY work being done to your home’s exterior. I view their role as a sort of tour guide to homeowners in their stewardship, or like a case-worker who checks in on a foster child. The buildings can’t protect themselves from bad taste and untrained eyes, so in many cases, I’m thankful they are there. It also occasionally, leads to a petulant property owner who feels that as an ‘owner’ he should get to do any cotton-pickin thing he damn well pleases. (Insert ‘hysterical preservation’ comments somewhere in here). This is the point at which we may refer said owner to the historic area plan for erudition and direction. The Herron-Morton Place area conservation plan, (fyi-locals call it ‘The Green Book’ because it’s in a green 3-ring binder–which you can purchase at IHPC) for example, has a history and analysis; a brief description/ history of all properties within the neighborhood; conditions, recommendations, design standards–a truly comprehensive plan including past, present and future from the perspective of 1986.
Within that book, in the “Recommendations” section, an excerpt: “Existing industrial and quasi-industrial commercial uses are incompatible with the residential character of Herron-Morton Place. Should these businesses relocate or cease operations, every effort should be made to recycle the vacated properties to residential or low intensity (office or neighborhood-related) low traffic generating commercial uses. This recommendation, which is in line with the land use recommendations of both the Comprehensive Plan of Marion County, and the 1983 Citizens Neighborhood Coalition Subarea Plan will help strengthen the neighborhood character of Herron-Morton Place by eliminating those uses which are incompatible with existing and proposed residential development.”
I understood the Green Book to be the foundation and guideline for the overall development of the neighborhood’s future. And what happened last Wednesday, was the approval of a new gas station on the northwest corner of 16th and Central. I’d have thought between the Green Book and the opposition of all surrounding neighborhoods, that this proposal would not make it through. I was informed that because it was zoned to be a gas station, there was no ground upon which IHPC could refuse to issue a Certificate of Authorization (or whichever certificate they need in this instance) if the design was up to par. This is where we return to the right and left hands not knowing what each is up to. If the very same office in charge of IHPC (that’d be the DMD) says that this type of use should be phased out of this location if possible (and certainly you would presume it possible, when the site has been vacated for well over 20 years), yet the zoning for a gas station exists (also under the DMD, as I understand it), and there is no method in place for changing that, it looks a lot like the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz pointing Dorothy & Toto in two opposite directions at the same time. Let me repeat here: I am no expert. But I am fairly decent at reading and following rules. And as a member of this neighborhood, I falsely believed that this plan for these neighborhoods were the rules and would be followed. As I (ineptly) argued at the hearing: 1. In installing a gas station here, we will be emulating activity that accompanied our neighborhood into a few decades of decline and 2. Just because it’s zoned this way right now should not determine it’s fate to be the same forever and ever, amen. Before it was zoned commercial, it was zoned residential, and before that, it was forested. How can we relegate this to be a gas station forever more? My metaphor didn’t translate well (always nerve-wrecking to testify at those things) but I said it’s like being a smoker for a few years, quitting and then many years later, to still be classified a smoker. It’s not ‘once a smoker, always a smoker.’ You’re a smoker until you aren’t anymore.
Evidently, the commissioners felt the design was up to par, but as I said at a recent meeting: I don’t care if it looks like the Taj Mahal, it’s still a gas station. Some of us had high hopes for the kind of neighborhood serving development that might eventually occupy that location. And I am sure many will wonder how I could eschew any opportunity to see a shiny new building at the corner of 16th & Central. When the alternative is the trash, noise and riff-raff magnet of a gas station with convenience store–quite easily! There are other considerations as well: the adverse financial toll this will take on nearby properties (appraisals and ability to sell) and the danger of the way the business must be done here–particularly the way the gas tankers must enter the property. (Check the above video to see what I mean.) Since when does a city knowingly violate a national law–last I knew, you aren’t supposed to cross double yellow lines to turn. Less so for double double-yellow lines. WTH? So, I could get a ticket for that, but the city has signed off on allowing a tanker filled with gas to do it? Once again showing that the rules aren’t for everyone?
I’m left to ask: what can we do to ensure this type of thing does not happen again to another thriving historic neighborhood or area? Why isn’t there a gas station on Washington in the immediate downtown, or on the Circle? Or adjacent to all our other lovely monuments along the mall? Probably the same reason there isn’t a giant plastic porto-potty. Because it is not desirable, appropriate, fitting or respectful of the surroundings. Our historic neighborhoods are also touted as a tourist destination, a place to get a feel for the culture and history of our city from a residential perspective. Seeing a few boarded up and yet to be developed parcels is often part of the deal in historic neighborhoods. A bright and shiny new gas station? Notsomuch.
I read, with great interest, a posting in September on Urban Indy, the comments left after a post discussing the gas station proposals for both this site and another. From snarky, to sympathetic to ridiculous, people weigh in on this issue, it seems, without living here nor having any knowledge of the comprehensive plans for the two neighborhoods most impacted by this gas station. My response:
I get really annoyed with these “it’s zoned for a gas station” arguments as reason to allow for it. Yeah, and before it was zoned for a gas station, it was zoned residential. I would like to believe we look to the past to help make better decisions about the future. And what I take from the past in this instance, is that a gas station was allowed there when A. the automobile was still a fairly new introduction to the world and B. the ‘well-to-do’ began their never-ending migration northward. I think the focus should be on what does the best good for the most people moving forward? And it is most certainly, NOT permitting this to happen again.
- One person supports a family owned, but not a chain gas station (WTH? Sounds more like a political agenda)
- One person is snarky about how downtowners evidently don’t deserve a quality of life anywhere near that of our vinyl subdivision brethren–since we live downtown, we should just suck it up, because there was once a gas station there, we should have no expectation to ever improve our area
- The assertion that a ‘tastefully done’ project that integrates well with the Tinker Street project is acceptable. Well, that’s actually an oxymoron, and as I understand it, absolutely against the Tinker Street Redevelopment vision.
- One woman is shocked at this anti-gas station sentiment, having relocated here from Manhattan. Uh, m’am, I’m no expert, but I’d say the density in Manhattan dwelling is just a trifle higher than the spread out neighborhoods we enjoy here. If I walked out my door and there was a bodega scrunched in here, a cafe there and commercial fronts, for the most part, below all residences, where I could easily walk to my dry cleaner, 5 restaurants and my gym, I’d likely expect a gas station here and there, too. But don’t be silly–we are talking about block after block of Victorians, four squares and vintage apartment buildings– a gas station is an egregious anomaly. NYC this is not.
- Someone compared this type of commercial environment to a restaurant and queries if the gas station will be a good neighbor, as that is the important part? Unfortunately, based on what I’ve seen of the other downtown gas stations, the person manning the station will never be caught outside his bullet proof box, much less, be monitoring the littering and chronic bumping base-line that seems inherent to gas stations.
- Still another opinion stated that “neighborhood input,” shouldn’t be a consideration. When, as a homeowner, you are lead to believe that there are rules in place to protect you, your home and neighborhood, you are going to fight for what you believe are your rights. The assumption in this case was also that NIMBY is at play and we’d be thrilled to see it in someone else’s neighborhood. No, I don’t like the notion of a gas station in the heart of any residential–especially historic–neighborhood.
- Rightfully so, one gentleman pointed out the alarming rate at which gas stations are being added to the landscape recently. Considering the environmental damage, as well as the other factors, we shouldn’t be keen to put them on every available street corner.
Indianapolis has really let me down here. Part of my rationale in moving to this city from Los Angeles was the warmth, old-fashioned values and perception that this was a place where people treat others as they’d like to be treated. Instead, in this instance, it seems people almost take pride in thumbing their noses at the misfortune of neighborhoods that have worked so hard to resuscitate the vitality and auspicious era the areas enjoyed at their inception, while hurtling through those same neighborhoods at break-neck speeds back to their cozy cul-de-sacs in the ‘burbs. How does the financial gain of one outweigh the financial, social and other detriment of hundreds, if not, thousands? What would you do if you were in my shoes? Just a reminder: we’re all schlepping this pebble together. And we could really improve our game on looking out for one another. It’s time for everyone to revisit The Golden Rule and their Dr. Seuss, because I am more frequently reminded every day, of The Lorax.
As a post script, I spent more than an hour at the state library to find more solid dates relating to this location: From 1915-1919- there was no listing, where there had previously been residents, but by 1925 the address specified the Tiona Refining Co Filling Station occupied the space.
And while in 1973 it was a Gulf Gas station, there were are a couple missing directories between years, but by 1979, Williams Car Wash was located at 1602 N Central, after having no listing for that address in 1978 or 1975. Translation: the very latest there was a gas station there was 1978. (33 years without, for those not inclined to count)