Group pushes to give Monument Circle historic designation

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Many consider Monument Circle to be more than just the heart of the city - it's also its historic core.

Yet it's never been one of the city's 16 "historic" districts. There's now a push to change that, led by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC).

"Most people think this is the most special place we have, it has to have special protection and they're surprised it doesn't," IHPC Administrator David Baker said.

The monument and Hilbert Theater are protected by the state, but the Circle and its four spokes are not (though they are covered by various zoning rules.)

Baker said making it a historic district would mean a new and "higher level design review," to make sure any changes to buildings, public infrastructure, streetscape and land use fit in or are "sensitive to the area."

Baker said, "A lot of people in the preservation community are concerned without special protection it could become radically altered."

He said it happened before in the northwest quadrant where Wellpoint now is. In 1948, the stately English Theater building came down to make way for a new JC Penney, which was essentially a concrete block with no windows above the first floor. When Penney's moved out, the building received a new black glass façade.

Baker said neither were "very sensitive to the area...At the time there was no review process and yes, that's what we're trying to avoid."

He said the new rules, which replace those of the Regional Center Plan, wouldn't regulate how the Circle or its buildings are used but the design and materials.

"It's not meant to stop change," he said. "These buildings have to adapt for the future, but we have to make sure it's done in a way that maintains the character we all love about the area."

He noted the Chase Building is a great example of "mid-century modern architecture done by a world-famous architect," and that the contemporary Emmis building was designed to incorporate a historic façade and be sensitive to it."

Barbara Whaley, who's worked downtown for years said she loves the Circle and thinks it deserves extra protection.

Referring to some of the older buildings, she said, "I'm just glad they saved them to keep the integrity of what was there before."

But Doug Stephenson, who's owned Downtown Comics on Market Street for 20 years, is a bit leery of the new designation. He thinks the current zoning regulations already offer sufficient protections.

"Whenever I hear historic preservation I think rigidity," Stephenson said.

Stephenson used to live on the Old Northside. He said being in a historic district meant going through a tedious process anytime he wanted to make changes to his home.

"What typically happens is it adds cost to everything," he said. "Sometimes something should cost $10,000, but because you need special items to blend in, it ends up costing $25,000."

He fears making the Circle a historic district could discourage new development. But Baker points to the Wholesale District, just south of the Circle. It's been a historic district since 1990.

Baker said, "there's been new construction, demolition and renovation going on like crazy. Empty buildings have become hotels. It's very vibrant."

The city does have long-term plans to make the Circle more of a pedestrian plaza. As Eyewitness News reported in May, the reconstruction would include limiting traffic on the circle, possibly to one lane, expanding the pedestrian area and green space and upgrading each of the four spokes.

It would also involve replacing the bricks, which have seen a lot of wear and tear over the last 30 years, with a new surface. It's all contingent on getting a federal transportation grant.

Asked how the new historic designation might affect it, Baker said, "it would be going through a review process anyway, except in this case it would be by the preservation commission."

The IHPC held the first of two public hearings on whether to designate the circle a historic district Thursday afternoon. Another one is set for August.

Both the IHPC and Metropolitan Development Commission must sign off on the designation. A final decision is expected by year's end.