The forest for the trees 

Crown Hill’s second chance

When people write the history of Indianapolis in the 21st century, it’s possible they’ll say that last week was a turning point. That’s because something that hardly anyone thought could happen actually came to pass: the Metropolitan Development Commission met a money-for-land deal it didn’t like.

The vote was close, 4-3, but it was still resounding.

The land in question was a wooded 70-acre parcel belonging to Crown Hill Cemetery. Crown Hill wanted to sell this land to help support the upkeep of its extensive grounds, which include 555 acres and over 20 miles of roads. Scores of Civil War veterans are buried there, as are John Dillinger, the state’s most notorious bank robber, and the Hoosier Poet, James Whitcomb Riley. Crown Hill is the third largest public cemetery in the country; everyone agrees that it is one of this city’s great treasures.

It costs $1.5 million a year to maintain Crown Hill. The cemetery has a $30 million endowment to help cover these expenses, but its board believes more money is needed and so the land in question was put up for sale. 

Early on, it’s been said, the Indianapolis Parks Foundation looked into making a bid on the land in order to turn it into a park. But Crown Hill found it could attract more money from commercial bidders and so park advocates found themselves out of the running. After a potential deal with Brenwick Development (the folks that brought us the Village of West Clay) fell through over what to do about wetlands on the property, Crown Hill finally reached agreement with another real estate developer, Mann Properties. Mann offered  $5.6 million.

Mann planned on building 309 homes and a strip mall on the land. It claimed this development would have an assessed value of more than $70 million — or better than $1 million per acre — and would generate annual tax revenue of $1 million or more. Mann also promised to preserve as much of the wetlands and the old growth trees as it could.

People observing this situation, including many who lived or worked nearby, did not find this promise reassuring. Slowly, but persistently, they began to protest. And as they protested, we all began to find out things about those 70 acres that many of us didn’t know before. That, for instance, the woodland part of the land, in spite of its close proximity to downtown, is practically pristine, the remnant of an ancient ecosystem that’s been all but wiped out in Marion County. But, incredibly, there it is: catching the breeze along 42nd Street. Anybody is free to take a walk there and see for themselves.

What makes this land so remarkable also makes it vulnerable. In a way, it’s a micro version of what’s happened all over Indiana. Less than 200 years ago, this state was covered with woodland like the 70-acre patch by Crown Hill. But these forests grew on ground that was level as a tabletop. In no time at all, the Indiana landscape gave way to farmer’s fields. For generations, Hoosiers have been conditioned to believe that where there’s a tree, there’s an opportunity to make a buck — junior, hand me my ax!

This has been especially true in a city in need of tax revenue. All too often, the MDC has gladly granted developers zoning variances to go ahead and impose developments that fly in the face of local planning documents, design principles and neighborhood carrying capacity. If somebody had the money and the desire to build, they were practically considered heroes.

Last week’s decision, though, suggests that maybe the way we think about development is changing. Maybe we’re beginning to understand that land, especially green space, is a valuable resource in its own right. That it’s ludicrous to cut down a 200-year-old tree and say that we’ve “replaced” it with a sapling. And that preserving undeveloped land can be a more attractive investment for the city than turning it into more houses, yards and concrete.

Crown Hill, of course, says that it will still market the property; its financial needs must be addressed. But the MDC has given the community an extraordinary second chance. As City-County Councilperson Scott Keller suggested at last week’s hearing, surely the funding necessary to purchase the land can now be raised. This, after all, is a town that doesn’t think twice about asking its business class to ante up $25 million for a Super Bowl bid; $5.6 million to preserve what could become a major inner city asset — a park that’s open to everyone — is not just a gift to a particular neighborhood. It’s an investment that will pay dividends in enhanced property values, environmental sustainability, health and well-being for generations to come. 

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David Hoppe

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