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.

Lovely church across from the gas station location

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?

Redeemer, one of our lovely historic places that also fronts 16th Street

The Herron-Morton Place Historic Area Plan, available for purchase at IHPC office- my copy is well-loved, highlighted and referred to

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.”

Recently rehabbed Penn Arts Building is looking great and there are already some wonderful businesses on the ground floor serving our neighborhoods

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.

Allow me to summarize highlights of the other many comments:
  • 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)

24 responses to “WTH? Check out that beautiful Historic Neighborhood… gas station?”

  1. Jim says:

    I empathize. Near my Northwestside home last year, a home that was built around a log cabin on Michigan Road was removed so that a gas station could be built. It was zoned for such a business and we found out too late.

    I’ve learned that sometimes these things don’t go your way, and you have to develop some zen about it or it will drive you nuts. But on the flip side, you have to keep pushing for what you believe in and think is right — and celebrate every victory of which you are a part, because they are truly precious.

  2. Janelle Renschler says:

    Thanks for a great post. I echo your sentiments exactly. The idea of a gas station at any site in HMP, even if it is a beautiful design, should have been nipped in the bud. I wish that the commissioners could justify how a business is “neighborhood-serving” if all neighborhood associations surrounding the area voted to oppose it. Also, by definition, a gas station is not “low traffic generating”. Apparently we might as well throw the green book plan in the trash. Perhaps IHPC will allow the rest of East 16th St to be developed in the same way as West 16th St near the track–strip clubs, liquor stores, check cashing, fast food, etc. You know, as long as they are well-designed buildings…

  3. Kevin Kastner says:

    I appreciate the link to our website. As a person who pushes for alternative transportation options, I would love to see such gas stations as mostly unnecessary in the future.

    Let me pose this question, however: what would be an acceptable use for the neighborhood at this corner?

  4. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    Thanks for asking, Kevin. Something that serves the neighborhood–if not a cafe or other place where neighbors might convene or run into each other, something else that would serve the neighborhoods and visitors. Possibly mixed use like at 25th & Delaware? Or if that is out of the question due to contaminated grounds (again, not familiar with rules or costs on this, but have heard it referenced) what about something like a bicycle repair and parking area for people visiting the redeveloped corridor or the Harrison Center and City Gallery on First Fridays. Or perhaps something we have yet to conceive of. Certainly not something that will be a magnet for riff-raff, trash, and light, noise and other pollution.

  5. Kevin Kastner says:

    Actually, Goose the Market was build on a former gas station brownfield. I think something similar would certainly work at 16th and Central.

  6. Raina Regan says:

    This seems like a slippery slope for the IHPC to travel down. If they continue to ignore or devalue select recommendations set forth in preservation or conservation plans, it seems like a legal challenge (unconstitutional vagueness or something of the sort) could be presented against the IHPC.

    I would assume these stations won’t be getting any or limited business from their neighbors…

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    Decisions like this are utterly puzzling to me. When called upon to decide, zoning boards of all kinds are supposed to READ THE PLANS and consider the impacts. Neighborhood plans and comprehensive plans are supposed to reflect the will of the people when they are created. This approval is not a slight variation from the plan, it’s a 180-degree contradiction.

  8. Brendan says:

    This is frustrating….though I’m not in the neighborhood, I’m a member of All Saints Episcopal Church (southeast corner of the intersection in question) and we were at the hearing 6 months or so ago when this gas station got shot down. I had no idea the proposal was still alive.

  9. Sandra Jarvis says:

    Excellent article. I totally agree and am a bit dismayed that the gas station is allowed to be constructed.
    Hopefully they will reconsider.

  10. Chris Cor says:

    I think the HMP neighborhood plan is against a gas station, but I don’t think you’re pointing to the correct section. This is not an industrial or quasi industrial site. In describing existing land uses, the HMP plan specifically notes “two commercial-industrial uses in the 1800 block of New Jersey Street and Central Avenue.” I’m sure it was the intention of the writers of the plan that these were the sites where they wanted to “recycle the vacated properties to residential or low intensity (office or neighborhood-related) low traffic generating commercial uses.” The line “low traffic” further bolsters this point, as the writers could not possibly have thought that 16th and Central would be low traffic, even in 1986.

    The section of the plan you should be pointing to is, “Neighborhood commercial uses traditionally have served Herron-Morton Place. These uses are geared to the needs of the local population and are generally not heavy traffic generators. Four areas with Herron-Morton are recommended for this intensity of commercial use. They are…..(3) the northwest corner of 16th Street and Central Avenue….” That basically nails the type of “not heavy traffic generator” use that should be on that corner and should have precluded a gas station.

    I feel for you. This gas station is not a good idea and should not have been approved over the voices of the surrounding neighborhoods.

    The only glimmer is that this is going to be BY FAR the most architecturally impressive gas station I’ve ever seen.

  11. Peter says:

    Regarding the tanker trucks crossing the double yellow lines to enter the gas station; that is legal in this country. A double yellow means NO PASSING. Vehicles have always been allowed to turn left into driveways over double yellows, provided they yield to oncoming traffic.

  12. Carolyn says:

    City living is city living – like it or not – gas station or not – Victorian homes or not!
    p.s. funny ~ response to my posting on UrbanIndy – I’m the NYC Manhattanite that you were referring too.
    I still hold my ground….

  13. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    Carolyn, we’ll have to just agree to disagree! 🙂

  14. Stewart Rafert says:

    Dear Tiffany,

    Thanks for a magnificent, thoughtful and passionate piece. I am still digesting it–the situation is, on the one hand, complex, but looked at from the context of the city’s history and preservation the situation is far less complex. It has to do with attitudes, that is, are historic preservation entities truly focussed on their mission. If they lack focus, strange or confused or ugly things can happen.

    By the way, I AM thrilled that the Penn Arts building has been restored. It languished as a ruin for so many years. My beloved great-grandmother Elnora Stewart lived on the top floor on the northwest corner. As a child, it was so pleasant and exciting to ride the elevator up and to enjoy a lovely apartment with windows on the two sides. Elnora Stewart was the wife of Frank Stewart, a prominent Indianapolis physician. They lived for many years at a modest home at 1730 N. Pennsylvania Street which is now long gone, and indeed, had many family memories. It was not historic in a larger sense.

    Stewart Rafert

  15. Linda Hupp says:

    There are examples all over the city of “recycled” gas station properties. One that comes immediately to mind is at the corner of Keystone and Kessler, near Glendale. While I could tell that it had started out life as a gas station, all that I could ever recall was the Wine Arts Store which sold supplies for brewing and packaging your own beer and wine. My husband who attended Bishop Chatard in the early 1970’s told me that it had, indeed ,been a gas station. I noticed a year or so ago that it was being vacated and although I don’t live in the area, I was very concerned where it would find its self. I was overjoyed to see that it now has a new life as BoKay Florist, along with a bright, cheerful new paint job is a great location for picking up some flowers. At a time when we have gas station/mini marts opening and closing seasonally, I am with you, who need another one? Or a CVS or Walgreens either? They are the visual equivalent of a Yugo. What is a Yugo, you ask? My point. I am not very knowledgeable about green books and the like, but I am assuming that we can all make it as far as 3-4 miles from downtown to buy gas. I am not judging the suburbs, I am the suburbs, and when I go downtown I like to see life as it should be, not necessarily life as it is. Flowers don’t have fumes, few flower shops make enough to get robbed and…well…flowers are pretty. As far as I am concerned that is enough for me. Call me Pollyanna, but I go to Sams for my gas anyway.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  16. veronica says:

    I am so shocked to hear this is happening. I live two l blocks from the proposed site and this just kills me. I refuse to even stop at gas station two blocks to the west off Illionois because you are guarneteed to get panhandled. NO THANK YOU! I moved here from Texas and feel in love with these two neighborhoods becasue I felt they were heading the the right direction. This feels like a giant leap backward!

  17. Don Feeback says:

    I have been working in the building at 143 street in indianapols for the last 16 years ,and wonder if anyone out there can tell me where I can find some pictures of the building when it was the harrison hotel . I would really be interested in seeing some interior photos, however anything would be welcome.

    Thank you

  18. Jim Walsh says:

    Don I have not photos , but a question. I think the Harrison Hotel was on the SEC of Capitol & Market across from the Indiana State Capitol and just west of the old traction terminal, is this correct?

  19. Aaron Carter says:

    Sometimes the most beautiful and historic things are the most random. In our town, it’s an old bar and and ancient school house that’s been turned into a driving school. They are just architecturally beautiful.

  20. Bill says:

    Well…someone won. The site is still vacant.

  21. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Yes, my understanding is that a small retail space is planned for the site now. Whew. That was a close one. Fingers crossed it actually comes to fruition.

  22. CHawk says:

    Unfortunately they’ve now just moved it across the street and there will likely be a Kroger fuel station on the NE corner.

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