Dreaming big for near eastside brownfield 

click to enlarge The view from the northwest corner of Ruby Park, looking at Olney Street from 21st Street. - HANNAH SWITZER
  • The view from the northwest corner of Ruby Park, looking at Olney Street from 21st Street.
  • Hannah Switzer

A Near Eastside community taskforce is investigating ways to redevelop a 39-acre brownfield at 21st and Olney streets, the former site of a factory that manufactured battery containers, bedsprings, and car parts. The taskforce, headed by property-owner Laurie Klinger, formed early this fall with the intention of turning Ruby Park into a solar farm that could power homes in the neighborhood. Graduate students from Ball State's College of Architecture and Planning presented their ideas for the site and the adjacent residential neighborhood, based on input from taskforce members at a public charette on Oct. 15 at the Brookside Park Community Center. IU Bloomington Director of Sustainability Bill Brown and his policy administration students also contributed to the charette.

The brownfield, known as Ruby Park, is owned by Connecticut-based Chemtura Corp., which ceased operations at the site in 2008. According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management the site contains soil contamination from lead, as well as chlorinated volatile organic compounds. Chemtura is involved in a remediation program with IDEM, but has not yet begun cleanup. Remediation concerns notwithstanding, students at the charette spent the day brainstorming and sketching out visions of what could be possible, planning as far as 40 years into the future.

Ruby Park sits in the neighborhood north of Brookside Park, known as NoBO. Bounded to the west by Rural Street, to the north by I-70, to the east by Sherman Drive, and to the south by Brookside Park, NoBO is a low-income neighborhood blighted by abandoned houses and empty lots. At the charette, students incorporated the taskforce's main concerns for the neighborhood in their drawings: crime, housing, and employment, and explored how to leverage existing resources. Much of what they came up with was more complex than the taskforce's original ideas for the site, though all of the plans incorporated the solar farm idea in some form.

click to enlarge Graduate students from Ball State's College of Architecture and Urban Planning in Indianapolis draw up plans for Ruby Park.
  • Graduate students from Ball State's College of Architecture and Urban Planning in Indianapolis draw up plans for Ruby Park.

The students were divided into three teams. One group focused on green energy, a second examined recreation and residential use, and the third focused on industrial and employment uses for the site. "Each of these is a story about the future," said Ball State professor and architect Bruce Race, addressing the community members at the charette. "And what we'd like to know, is what part of these stories do you like, and what don't you like."

BSU student Travis Glascock's team worked on possible industrial uses for the site. "We started looking at the surrounding businesses, and what jobs are there. You guys actually have a battery manufacturer in this area that does large-scale industrial-type batteries," Glascock said during his group's presentation. "You guys have a place that already distributes solar, geothermal, HVAC-type materials. And you also have an electrical training institute, the IEC. And then you also have Martin University just to the north. So you already have some educational opportunities for technology-type jobs."

Glascock said his group estimated that covering the entire Ruby Park site with solar panels could generate electricity for nearly 2,000 homes. (There are currently about 600 homes in the NoBO neighborhood). But he said that building a solar farm does not create many long-term jobs. If the rooftops of nearby industrial buildings were covered with solar panels, the group estimated that the amount of electricity generated would be virtually identical, freeing Ruby Park for other uses. Glascock's group also proposed digging up baseball fields to the south in Brookside Park to install geothermal technology, which could be fed into the site or the neighborhood.

Uses students proposed for the site ran the gamut from warehousing and industrial salvaging to an orchard, greenhouse and garden with an adjacent grocery, to houses. One resident expressed concern about food production on a contaminated site.

"The lead contaminants are concentrated on the southern side of the site, so the orchard would be not on top of that area," Ball State student Erin Roznik responded. "There are other plants that could be planted to remediate some of those issues, it's called phytoremediation. Sunflowers are another thing that could be planted to soak up some of that," she said.

Roznik's group drew a parking area with a solar-paneled canopy over the lead-contaminated area at the southeast corner of the site, a use that would most likely be permitted if the area were capped to prevent lead leaching into other areas. Crops could be planted in raised beds on top of the foundations of buildings that were demolished in 2011, Roznik explained, preventing contamination from volatile organic compounds that have been found in Ruby Park.

In perhaps the most creative imagining, the group working on residential uses drew a series of circular green spaces surrounded by houses that were connected by roads on the western half of the site. These shared-yard developments could be a solution to the taskforce's desire to have a safe space for children to play, BSU student Jessica Krates explained.

Professor Bruce Race called this cluster-based residential plan "fanciful." However, he said that while building houses on a site next to a neighborhood with so many distressed and abandoned homes seems impractical now, it makes sense when you take the long view.

"In the long term, we're gonna add over half a million people to [the] greater Indianapolis area by the time this is drawn," Race said. "So, if we get it right, we'll have new neighbors, and all these empty houses won't be empty any more."

The students also re-envisioned the NoBO neighborhood, with plans including turning Olney Street into a tree-lined boulevard that would connect to Brookside Park, turning a historic building into a co-working space, and developing mini-parks on intersections.

"I am so thrilled by this experience," organizer Laurie Klinger said after the presentation. "It kind of switched the direction I wanted to go, but that's OK."

According to a Chemtura representative, the company plans to submit an updated remediation plan to IDEM on Oct. 31. Chemtura plans to complete the remediation, and monitor the success of the cleanup, a process that is expected to take about three years. After the remediation process is complete, Chemtura will look to sell Ruby Park.

Policy administration students working under Bill Brown at IU Bloomington are researching the political and legal challenges to redeveloping Ruby Park, as well as possible sources of funding, for a class project. They will present their findings to the taskforce on Dec. 10.

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