(Courtesy of Irvington Community Council)

In February, a ULI Advisory Services panel visited Indianapolis to recommend redevelopment possibilities for sites near a planned bus rapid transit (BRT) station in the Irvington neighborhood. The panel sought to address potential redevelopment types and programs, multimodal connectivity improvements, potential challenges and opportunities, and suggested action items. (View the panel’s summary and presentation.)

Referring to Irvington as “surban,” a cross between suburban and urban, panelists noted that it was the first Indianapolis community to represent historic urbanism. Located approximately five miles (8 km) east of downtown Indianapolis, Irvington was named after author Washington Irving who settled there in the early 1800s, planned in the 1870s as an independent suburb, and annexed by the city of Indianapolis in 1902. The area includes one of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission’s 17 historic districts, given historic Irvington’s approach to planning—winding roads and landscapes that depart from the city’s grid system—and the architectural styles of its homes.

In addition to its historic features, Irvington benefits from highly engaged community groups and the promise of increased connectivity.

While Washington Street/U.S. 40—the historic National Road—bisects Irvington, the center lane of this major east–west thoroughfare will encompass a BRT lane, the proposed Blue Line of the multiroute BRT system approved by a 2016 referendum.

“BRT is a long-term game-changer for the entire city,” said panel chair Alan Razak of Philadelphia-based AthenianRazak.

The Blue Line is scheduled for completion in 2022, with a planned transit station located in the study area. Washington Street is also home to vibrant Irvington businesses, including a half-mile (0.8 km) streetscape that is one of the defining aspects of the neighborhood.

The panel’s study area and project sites.

Along with its vehicular and planned transit connectivity, the study area also includes the Pennsy Trail Greenway, one of Indianapolis’s multiple biking/walking trails slated for future expansion.

Reimagining Retail and Industrial Sites 

The primary site the panel evaluated included Irvington Plaza—a declining shopping center located between the planned BRT route and the Pennsy Trail Greenway—and adjacent properties. The shopping center has multiple vacancies, a situation worsened by the 2017 departure of an anchor grocery tenant. The city of Indian­apolis and Irvington residents view the site as an opportunity for development that could support the BRT line and spur further activity in the area. The panel also evaluated a portion of a decommissioned Ford plant site adjacent to the greenway.

“We needed to understand the possibilities, opportunities, obstacles, and where to begin, because these are very challenging sites to develop,” said Emily Mack, director, Department of Metropolitan Development at the city of Indianapolis. “This planning exercise by a panel of national real estate experts provides a great launching pad for us as we look toward the future.”

Based on in-depth briefings from the sponsor committee, a tour of the study area, and interviews with more than 65 stakeholders, the panel provided multiple recommendations intended to capitalize on transit-oriented development, reintroduce the street grid, and create a true plaza, while emphasizing walkability and diversity of uses.

The panel’s concept had three fundamental themes: creating a gathering place, a gateway, and a neighborhood restored as a seamless part of Irvington.

A Gateway and Gathering Place

A significant feature of the redevelopment recommendations is a central plaza capable of hosting year-round uses, like being part of the annual Historic Irvington Halloween Festival, now in its 72nd year.

Located just off the BRT station, the plaza would create both a sense of place and a sense of arrival. The station also offers the opportunity for branding and an iconic gesture to communicate its role as a gateway. While “Irvington Plaza” is the current name of the declining shopping center, the panel suggested retaining the name with the redevelopment, because it would house a true gathering place.

The approach would redefine Irvington Plaza as “not a single property or failed shopping center, but a new gathering place for Irvington,” Razak said.

Introducing Connections

The panel’s concept also included reconnecting the neighborhood by extending the adjacent street grid into and throughout the entire site.

Whether historic Irvington or Irvington Plaza, “it’s all Irvington,” Razak said. “Let’s connect it” by making the site “a neighborhood restored as a seamless part of Irvington.”

In addition to the connectivity provided by the upcoming BRT and recommended street grid, Pennsy Trail has the potential for a more prominent role by connecting to companion trails. For the Ford site, located southeast of Irvington Plaza and adjacent to the Pennsy Trail—the panel suggested a recreational use, such as a park or ball fields that would provide walkability to Irvington Plaza by way of the Pennsy Trail.

The panel also encouraged connecting the historic commercial district on Washington Street with the redeveloped site through intentional streetscaping and zero-lot-lined commercial development.

A concept drawing of a residential project with a community gathering places at its heart.

Mixed Use and New Housing Product Types

In Irvington today, higher-priced single-family homes are on the market for just a few days or even a matter of hours. And as a component of the regional Transit-Oriented Development Strate­gic Plan, Indianapolis-based consulting firm Greenstreet Ltd. estimated a demand for 18,082 mixed-use, walkable, attached units in Indianapolis by 2040.

The panel believes the Irvington Plaza site can support 440 attached housing units. The sample presented included 226 units of for-sale townhomes ranging from 1,200 to 1,600 square feet (111 to 149 sq m), as well as rental units the panel coined “urban niche,” measuring approximately 624 square feet (58 sq m) each.

Other recommended components of the Irvington Plaza redevelopment concept included a grocery store, community-serving retail, and food service. Artist/maker space on the south end of Irvington Plaza could serve as a buffer between the residential area and the existing light-industrial area across the Pennsy Trail and behind the site.

Approach to Development

While the panelists outlined different options the city of Indianapolis could consider for implementation, they encouraged the city to “lead from the front” and consider the role of master developer.

“The city as master developer has many benefits,” Razak said. “Cities used to build this way and many still do.” In addition to providing flexibility in financing and timing, the model would allow the city to engage a variety of developers and builders, resulting in “diversity of architecture, configuration, and building types, just like a normal neighborhood,” Razak said.

The panel’s recommendations also included a financial feasibility analysis showing how the city of Indianapolis could fund its role of acquisition and infrastructure creation through a tax increment financing model.

In addition, panelists underscored the importance of a robust community involvement process and the long-term commitment of resources.

With the city’s help, the sites within and around Irvington Plaza are feasible for redevelopment at a scale that would have an impact on the area’s submarket.

“This is a rare, market-making opportunity that can create the gathering place Irvington wants and needs surrounded by a neighborhood knitted to the fabric of the surrounding community,” Razak said. “Stay engaged to make it happen.”