Tour studies new use for Indianapolis eyesores

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A group affiliated with the Urban Land Institute, based in Washington, DC is Indianapolis this week to help the city find ways to attract new jobs.

But the group's focus isn't on downtown. It's on an area known for its high foreclosure rate.

Wednesday morning, about two dozen people from places like Denver, Memphis, Portland, Oregon and Honolulu boarded an IndyGo bus to tour the Mass. Avenue Industrial corridor, which is northeast of Interstates 65-70.

Once they left the trendy Mass. Ave. with its restaurants, bars and theaters, they saw the Mass. Ave. lined with blighted and often vacant houses and buildings.

Pointing to a vacant house, one man asked, "Do you just board it up and let it sit?"

Adam Thies, director of the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development, told him, "There are two phases of any house when it come to foreclosure."

The questions continued as the bus traveled parallel to railroad tracks and along large vacant properties surrounded by barbed wire fencing.

But Thies also pointed out bright spots. 

"There you see what's known as the Oaks Academy," he said, noting it was a successful charter school that had opened a second school at another location.

The group also stopped at Recycle Force, a recycling center that opened a year and a half ago in a large, once foreclosed warehouse.

Company president Gregg Keesling noted that every one of the 125 employees was an ex-offender and part of a national study on people transitioning to life after prison.

After touring the facility, Gideon Berger, an urban planner from Denver, said, "The scale of the operation is impressive and (so is) the fact that they're helping folks out of prison make a living."

Several members of the group are part of the ULI's Rose Fellowship program. It provides the mayors of "four large U.S. cities with assistance on a local land use development challenge."

The mayors appoint "fellows" to take part in workshops, studies and tours like the one taking place in Indianapolis.

Jess Zimbabwe, who heads the Rose Fellowship said the challenge they were given for Indy is "to figure out how to redevelop the Mass. Ave. corridor...we couldn't do this type of thing without being on the ground and seeing sights like the one we just toured, (finding out) what demand is like for it, what the concerns for the community are."

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut is part of the ULI and was part of Wednesday's tour. He said revitalizing areas like the Mass. Ave. corridor "is very urgent. Cities are organisms and they grow or die."

He also said growing jobs is one way of fighting crime.

"Jobs and housing are key," Hudnut said.  "There's a lot of housing that's boarded up and should probably be torn down."

Of the group, he said, "This is helpful. We have some real superstars on this team. I hope they come up with recommendations that are helpful to the mayor."

Thies said the challenge looms large.

"It's not as simple as having a piece of land. You have to be prepared with infrastructure, transportation and an employee work force," he said. "So I'm looking forward to hearing the experts commentary on what we could or should be doing."

Members of the group will meet throughout the day Thursday making their recommendations for redeveloping the Mass. Ave. industrial corridor Friday morning. 

Note: Speaking of hot properties on Mass. Avenue, the old Coca Cola Bottling plant, owned by IPS for more than 40 years, may soon be up for sale.

It's one of the recommendations from an Indy Chamber study on how the school district can save money. IPS has used the 350,000-square-foot property as a bus facility.

Developers have long eyed it as prime location for redevelopment.