"Zoning change to get hearing next week

The Jan. 17 meeting of the Metropolitan Development Commission promises to be lively, if not downright contentious. Crown Hill has accepted Mann Properties’ offer on a 70-acre tract of undeveloped land at the northwest corner of Michigan Road and 42nd Street that the cemetery is offering for sale contingent on rezoning approval. Mann’s zoning petition seeks to change the classification from the current institution/public use status to the mixed commercial/residential classification that would allow the retail strip and residential neighborhoods Mann envisions.

The petition faces opposition from groups including the governing Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association, whose board voted to oppose the plan on Jan. 8. Other groups that have registered opposition include the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations, the Crooked Creek Community Council, the Christian Theological Seminary Student Council, Fairview Neighbors and Friends and the newly formed Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors, a group of area residents, conservationists and staff members of nearby institutions.

The Alliance came together to support preservation of the woodlands and wetlands at Crown Hill. They propose to “work with the current owner of the property and potential buyers to ensure that this natural heritage site remains a cultural and educational resource and a natural reserve area.”

The Nora Northside Community Council, though not opposing the petition per se, voted to support the Alliance.

Tim Stevens, development coordinator for Mann, is not surprised at the opposition the proposed development is drawing, having watched the attention paid Brenwick Development's earlier offer for the same land. Stevens notes, "People who are passionately against something speak louder than people who are quietly supportive," and says, "Some people are for the development, they're just not speaking out."

Keith Norwalk, president and CEO of Crown Hill, says he's "pleased with the sensitivity Mann has shown to neighborhood and environmental concerns." Norwalk adds, "The proposed development is an enhancement to the residential community and provides needed funding to provide maintenance for the Crown Hill Care Fund. We have to increase the endowment and believe selling this parcel is a prudent financial decision."

Dr. Felicity Kelcourse, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at the Christian Theological Seminary across from Crown Hill, is one of those passionately opposed. She asks, "Will our tax dollars be put to good use when an established wetland woods that now provides the city with clean air and clean water is decimated for development?" Kelcourse believes that "with a little patience Crown Hill could have the money it needs and the neighboring area would have a public open space it badly needs. This would be win-win for the area."

"I feel it's wrong to sell off what is an asset to Central Indiana and this community," says Holliday Day, former curator of contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. "What will happen next time they have a deficit? Maintaining the land doesn't cost them anything — they don't pay taxes on it, they don't cut trees. They say they have enough land for 200 years, but who can predict; they may need the land for burials in the event of an epidemic or catastrophe, and once it's gone, it can't be replaced."

The housing enclaves

Mann's development proposal includes three separate housing enclaves, with a total of 321 dwellings and more than twice that many parking spaces on about 44 acres after subtracting out the 6-acre retail strip and the minimum 20 acres of woodlands/wetlands Mann promises to preserve. Mann will develop the residential sites but will turn over the actual construction to residential developers or individual builders.

Situated in the northeast corner of the parcel, the proposed Tarkington Village will be a "traditional neighborhood design" with rows of 1,500-square-foot, single-family homes situated on lots whose frontage is 4 to 6 feet smaller than the existing homes bordering the site on Clarendon Road and 42nd Street. Access to the Village will be via private alleys, not subject to city trash services or snow removal.

The only public street planned for the site leads into the 50 lots of Tarkington Estates, a neighborhood of high-end home sites providing 2,000 square feet of living space. Though the design plan is flexible, Mann's proposal calls for "carefully placed streets, cul-de-sacs and lots to minimize development influence of wetlands, while maximizing woodland integrity." In fact, lots abut and sometimes form part of the woodlands Mann proposes to preserve.

The Townhomes at Tarkington, the residential area closest to the proposed retail strip, are envisioned as either attached single-family homes or two- or three-story condominium buildings with around 171 units with 1,100 square feet of living space each.

A recent search of the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors Web site shows more than 700 properties available between Crown Hill and downtown, and 400 in the 46208 zip code that includes Crown Hill. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of those homes are in new developments. Houses in the area generally take about twice as long to sell as in the rest of the city.

The retail end

This commercial development appeals to potential residential developers and some residents and employees at nearby institutions. The Historic Meridian Park Neighborhood Association's boundaries are slightly south and east of Crown Hill, but board member and former President Steve Towns believes that "any improvement in any adjacent neighborhood is an improvement in the community at large." Barring unforeseen circumstances, Towns expects the board to come out in favor of Mann's proposal, adding that he's "especially excited about the retail component."

But the proposed Tarkington Marketplace is the aspect that draws vociferous opposition from the Crooked Creek Community Council. C4, as it's known, opposes the development in favor of the county's Comprehensive Plan, which calls for a commercial area a mile or so north around the intersection of Michigan Road and Kessler Boulevard — an area showing signs of resurgence with the recently announced summer opening of a Starbucks at the northeast corner of that intersection. In a letter to the Metropolitan Development Commission, C4 expressed the fear that their revitalization efforts would suffer "a major, if not fatal setback ... if retail development would be allowed at 42nd Street and Michigan Road."

Water, water everywhere

The wetlands on Crown Hill's land reportedly are responsible, at least partly, for the withdrawal of Brenwick's offer to buy and develop the land last year (see sidebar) and definitely are the cause for much concern within the local environmental community. The origin of the wetlands, however, is decidedly unromantic, according to Norwalk, who says that the seepage from a clogged sewer drain in the 1930s is the basis for at least part of today's environmentally sensitive area.

The Mann proposal promises — indeed, Department of Public Works requires — that the development will cause no increase in either the amount or rate of water flow, but those familiar with the area's slow-draining layers of soil, clay and sand fear that the over-taxed combined sewer/storm drainage system will be unable to handle the impact of 321 more households, much less the demands of the 6-acre retail area, which will replace porous earth with asphalt and concrete and remove a large portion of the rain-absorbing woodlands.

To handle part of the storm runoff, Mann proposes swales between the rows of houses in the Village neighborhood so that the rows of houses will be interspersed with alleys and grassy depressions to hold storm water as it drains. Mann plans to use innovative Low Impact Development techniques to hold some water in underground cisterns and allow slow drainage.

The Indiana Interchurch Center, across 42nd Street from the cemetery, is on record as opposing the development of the woodland/wetland area. The center has spent more than $200,000 in an unavailing effort to prevent recurring flooding problems and fears that development across the street will exacerbate their problems.

Woods and wildlife

Vine & Branch did a survey of the trees on the land, counting only those with a diameter greater than 9 inches, which left smaller species such as red bud, dogwood, evergreens and berry bushes that flourish in wet conditions uncounted. Nevertheless, the survey identified 2,745 trees, of varieties ranging from pin and bur oaks to silver maples, Siberian elms and sycamores. The largest, a cottonwood 80 inches in diameter, is as wide as Pacer Stephen Jackson is tall and has at least a century or two on Mr. Jackson's 25 years. Local resident Mary Walker also counted well over 50 species of indigenous Indiana wildflowers.

Though a board member of the Indianapolis Museum of Art Horticultural Society and the newly created Indianapolis Tree Board, Mary Ellen Gadski speaks for neither organization when she says, "There may not be another chance in Marion County to safeguard a tract of woodland of such environmental significance. Very little study has been done of the tract, but looking at the tree inventory alone, there appears to be a pre-settlement remnant with trees in the range of 200 years old. This is no place for a run-of-the-mill strip mall. It's in the public interest to preserve this woodland for all its benefits to the community."

The sight of deer grazing or warily approaching the fence is one that captivates many who use the trail that rings the Christian Theological Seminary or drive along 42nd Street. The fence Mann proposes along the southern boundary with the cemetery "may include open segments for wildlife access" according to the zoning submittal, but no other accommodation for the herd is being made.

Tarkington turmoil

Patricia Cochran, the 87-year-old granddaughter of Indiana author Booth Tarkington's only sister, recalls that "Uncle Booth" was so unnerved by the honor of having Tarkington Park named for him that he referred to it only as "Tark Park." That park is across from the Tarkington Towers Condominium Association on Meridian Street, both of which are within the borders of the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood. All these are fine uses of the Tarkington name according to Tarkington's closest living relative. As such, Cochran serves as spokesperson for a group of more than a dozen Tarkington first cousins who, upon learning of Mann's intention to use the Tarkington name in the proposed development without consulting any family member, wrote a letter stating their objections: "The Tarkington family does not feel that the proposed real estate development ... is in keeping with Booth Tarkington's values." The letter asked Mann to remove the Tarkington name from all aspects of the development.

Cochran's late husband was a contractor, and one of her primary objections is that the development isn't using first-class materials. Her fear is that "eventually it will become a slum, which will be a terrible thing because Crown Hill is a national treasure."

The response from Mann stated, "We don't believe our proposed project dishonors Booth Tarkington; quite the contrary, we feel that it further solidifies Mr. Tarkington's historic stature in Indiana."

In Cochran's opinion, "callous is a good word" to describe Mann's insistence on using the name in the face of the family's united opposition.

Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors can be reached at 317-283-6283.

What: Metropolitan Development Commission meeting

When: Wednesday, Jan. 17, 1 p.m.

Where: City-County Building, 200 E. Washington St., in the Public Assembly Room on the second floor

Saga of a (proposed) cemetery sale

Crown Hill has known for many years that it needed to take action to supplement the Care Fund that provides for maintenance of the cemetery and gravesites. Launching the Crown Hill Funeral Home in 1993 was a direct outgrowth of efforts to supplement the endowment with the proceeds from this for-profit enterprise. When profits didn’t match the Care Fund’s needs, Crown Hill looked to other sources for income.

Early 2005: A Crown Hill board member approaches the Indy Parks Foundation to ask whether it has interest in purchasing 70 acres of the cemetery’s land that curve north along Michigan Road to 42nd Street and over to Clarendon Road. After a presentation by Keith Norwalk, president and CEO of Crown Hill, the Indy Parks and Foundation board engages to raise $3 million — the pre-appraisal price.

April 2005: Cindy Porteous, executive director of the Indianapolis Parks Foundation, is “disappointed to say the least” when Norwalk informed her that Crown Hill decided to put the land on the open market. Norwalk recalls that the foundation was out of the picture only after it was clear that it couldn’t make a viable offer.

December 2005: Crown Hill accepts Brenwick Development’s $5 million offer.

March 2006: Brenwick withdraws its offer. The presence of wetlands is revealed. Crown Hill is very receptive to the possibility of an offer from the Central Indiana Land Trust, Inc. Soon after an initial conversation, CILTI is informed that an offer must be proffered within three weeks and finds itself unable to raise funds that quickly.

July 2006: Crown Hill accepts a $5.6 million offer from Mann Properties.

September 2006: Mann files a petition for a zoning change from the current zoning to permit mixed commercial and residential development.

Jan. 17, 2007: Meeting of the Metropolitan Development Commission to hear Mann Properties’ petition for rezoning at 1 p.m. in the Public Assembly Room on the second floor of the City-County Building at 200 E. Washington St.