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SEND new construction: multi-unit infill in two emerging neighborhoods.

It’s rare that buildings this small get a comprehensive analysis on Urban Indy.  Usually it’s just a snapshot.  But since these multi-family structures represent probably the first permits for new construction on the near south side in decades, and I, your journalist, am incapable of keeping my articles short, you get the full deal.  And, from putting my ear to the train tracks for a few months, it seems that the opinions run the full gamut on the success of these developments, so my intent is to put it all into perspective.  Here they are.  The first development, with a Phase I complete and fully leased, is known as the Carburetor Lofts, on Shelby Street, near the Fountain Square Brewery:

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The second development, in which Phase I is probably in the last quarter of its construction schedule, is known as the East Street Flats.

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Both developments arrive on the scene courtesy of Southeast Neighborhood Development (SEND), the CDC covering a significant portion of Indy’s near-south and southeast neighborhoods.  The agency’s goal was to meet demand for affordable contemporary homes in the two neighborhoods, Fountain Square and Bates-Hendricks, both of which have poverty levels that are above the city’s average. However, the neighborhoods also sit so close to downtown that they are showing ample evidence of gentrification.  These new developments serve to develop vacant or underutilized lots, boosting population in neighborhoods that, until recently, had been steadily declining.  SEND received Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funds from the City of Indianapolis, intended for both rehab and new construction.  In the long run, SEND hopes these non-conforming structures will help bring new energy to the neighborhoods, stimulating other private development.

 

Beyond the two multi-family apartments featured above, SEND also used some of the funds for three single-family residential units as infill: 701 Shelby Street, 970 Elm Street, and 1049 Hosbrook Street.  Of these three parcels, two already consisted of vacant lots; the third was an abandoned home that SEND demolished in order to make room for new construction.  All three of the single houses target households at 120% of the Area Median Income (AMI), as do the units at the Carburetor Lofts.  The East Street Flats are split, with three units targeting households at 120% AMI and three targeting 50% AMI.  While 120% AMI might seem unusually high, few households seeking stylish modern units in an urban setting would be able to afford similar projects in northside neighborhoods, for example, where the contemporary infill in Herron-Morton Place more likely to cost well over a quarter million dollars.  SEND partnered with architect Mark Beebe for most projects, building off of their relationship in the past, though he still had to respond to a bid to prove his aptitude for contemporary design, since much of his previous work had followed a more conservative, suburban vernacular.  This article will focus exclusively on the two multi-family projects.

 

The first, Carburetor Lofts, encompasses the redevelopment of a former carburetor exchange site.

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Phase I, visible in the photo above, features three two-story attached one-bedroom apartments that directly front Shelby Street, with a setback of just a few feet.  The first floor of each unit comprises a one-car garage in the back of the building—

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–and flex room in the front (along the Shelby Street sidewalk), which intends to serve as either a common space, artists’ studio, or even a micro-retail storefront.  Meanwhile, the second floor functions much more like a conventional apartment: a great room with kitchenette, a bedroom, full bath, walk-in closet, and a small balcony above the garage (facing the back of the units).

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Photo courtesy of Kipp Normand.

I am usually chary to delve too deeply into criticism of the design as an artistic gesture.  I am not remotely qualified as an architecture critic, and I remain convinced that design judgments are intrinsically subjective, inasmuch as inherently good or bad design from an aesthetic standpoint owes too much to individual tastes.  That said, architect Mark Beebe’s exterior has really grown on me: the massing may seem a bit too humble for one of Indianapolis’ strongest historic commercial nodes, especially when one views the street wall from Fountain Square’s heart looking south on Shelby:

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The Carburetor Lofts are on the right side of the street, but they don’t really assert themselves much at all.  You can barely see them.  Frankly, I don’t think it’s a problem—most likely the right side of the street historically could boast old street frontage like the surviving structures on the left side, but they were torn down in a less respectable era to make room for conventional suburban structures like the Dollar General store, Bud’s Grocery and their respective parking lots.  As Beebe observed, these buildings lack any context in the immediate area, since asphalt surrounds them.  These three units actually fit well with the massing on this section of Shelby Street, which tapers considerably when one ventures south of the proud Fountain Square Theatre Building.  I also am fond of the second floor’s playful but never ostentatious use of colors, vaguely reminiscent of the juxtaposition of differently sized squares in a Mondrian painting.

 

Beyond that, I am less sanguine about the apartments’ urban form—a subject for which it is easier for me to make explicit qualitative judgments.  The first floor street frontage is difficult to understand.

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The fenestration is a bit too reticent for these ever to function as prime retail.  The modest windows suggest a private residence, so it very unlikely that eyes will ever linger on these entrances; it feels too much like you are peering in.  While the room inside may serve adequately as live-work space for artisans plying their trade, even that seems dubious.

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It would be impractical for this 14’ x 12’ room ever to function as a true storefront. Because so much of the first floor consists of that garage with the entrance on the back, this room is simply too small for anything beyond microretail.

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The layout of the first floor begs the question: is it really essential that affordable units in Fountain Square, one of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods, contain space for a protected garage?  In a neighborhood as old as this, plenty of market rate units in the area can’t boast such an amenity.  And these units would still offer comfy off-street parking in the back.  If the buildings had scrapped the garages, the flex room would live up to its name.  It appears awfully constraining from this vantage point.  Time will only tell how the tenants use their first floors, but I’d be very surprised if we ever see those curtains open, or customers walking in.  Hopefully I’m wrong.

 

The even bigger drawback, however, is the positioning of the units on the land.  Notice how the buildings sit in the center of the parcel.

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It would appear that the narrow patches of land to the north and south of this are now rendered almost useless.

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Fortunately, an interview with Bryan Conn of SEND—further corroborated by architect Mark Beebe—revealed that SEND has further plans for most of this space, particularly the north side of the buildings: Phase II, featuring three more units, will eventually fill this grassy void up to the corner where Shelby meets the alley.

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The presence of a window on the northern face of the Phase I Carburetor Lofts indicates that the second phase will be detached; no party wall.  Conn has noted that a pedestrian path will separate Phase I and II, and Beebe says that the conceptual design for Phase II of the Lofts is already complete.  Interestingly, the south side does not feature a window, yet the vacant patch of land that it faces will remain undeveloped.

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When SEND bought the parcel, it included the old auto mechanic building behind it, now home to Fountain Square Brewery.  When Brewery leased that building, it insisted on basic visibility as part of the lease.  If SEND were to build Carburetor Lofts all the way to the lot line to both the north and the south, the apartments would largely obscure the brewery.  Thus, SEND is now seeking a grant from Keep Indianapolis Beautiful to provide landscaping and stormwater management for the southern side of the units.  One might argue that SEND made a pretty hefty concession to the tenants of the brewery by forfeiting their rights to develop a sizable portion of their land, but there’s nothing to say they couldn’t forge a new agreement and develop it at a later point in time.

 

All in all, the Carburetor Lofts more than compensate for their shortcomings by the flourish of contemporary living that they contribute to an old neighborhood.  I admire the live-work initiative that they embody.  But at this point, none of the tenants have put the storefront element to the test, so remains to be seen if it will succeed as microretail.  At this point in time, Indianapolis does not boast many examples of flourishing microretail that I can think of, yet Fountain Square already has several live-work structures nearby, like the two-story structure on the left in the photo below:

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Yes, many of them are in such abysmal condition that the cost of renovation probably exceeds demolition and rebuild (which is the most likely explanation for why they remain vacant to this day).  But Fountain Square also has excellent examples of what could have been terrific microretail space, and in good condition too.

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Yes, the northwest face of the Murphy Building would have been ideal for local entrepreneurs to take advantage of the foot traffic, mitigating the high lease costs of the neighborhood through particularly small storefronts.  Alas, a marketing firm leased the entire space several weeks ago—they’re probably here for the long haul.

 

I have no intention of denying Well Done Marketing’s right to this wonderful location; no other business had claimed the space, and they are just as entitled to it as anyone else.  But just as I alluded to a few weeks ago in my analysis of Mass Ave retail, a space with such visibility and a smartly landscaped plaza is merely an appealing bonus for an ad agency; for actual retail, it’s a sine qua non.  If Fountain Square were as vibrant as we hope it eventually will be, that space would not have remained vacant for so long, and retail tenants would have staked it out, because serviced-based firms (advertising, medical, law, insurance) would have determined that it’s too pricey to be worth it.  Service firms can manage bang-up business without depending on passers-by looking through their windows.

 

Clearly this shrewd ad agency can now take full advantage of the high profile that this space lends it.  But if Fountain Square continues to gentrify, the owners may eventually find the escalating lease rates pressure them into space elsewhere.  Regardless of what becomes of these older structures in Fountain Square, they could have served as evidence that microretail pioneering could flourish at Carburetor Lofts.  I’m thrilled that these three units had no problem finding tenants.  But, meandering through the neighborhood’s tiny storefront offerings, no fledgling retailers have yet nibbled.

 

 

 

 

The not-yet-complete East Street Flats suggest that SEND’s design and development teams have already learned from their mistakes.  Though they are not yet complete, they offer what is in my opinion an excellent addition to the Bates-Hendricks neighborhood.  The six units currently underway as part of Phase I sit at the corner of East Street and Sanders Street.  Architect Mark Beebe notes that, unlike the Carburetor Lofts, the East Street Flats received a small amount of pushback from the neighborhood regarding design specifics.   Originally a bit more unorthodox, members of the neighborhood asked for greater conformity in terms of the existing housing stock’s tradition of rooflines and gables.  While the corner unit emphasizes horizontality, the others have adopted a more conventional gable and sloping roof.  Here’s the corner unit:

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And here it is in relation to the others:

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I suppose I could cavil about the absence of retail, but the East Street Flats really probably couldn’t support them.  The intersecting Sanders Street is merely a local road, and this section of East Street does not show much indication that it has ever operated as a main street, since it is punctuated only by the occasional corner storefront.  I’m particularly pleased that these buildings have not succumbed to the almighty garage.

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While it’s possible that construction of detached garages is forthcoming, I don’t see that being the case at this point.  The development team recognized that the lot behind the structures will offer ample off-street parking, and both East and (particularly) Sanders Street should provide any remaining needed on-street parking.  The one aspect of the development that puzzled me was the unit in isolation:

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I’m not clear what the intent for this was, unless it is offering greater amenities than the other units and will cost more to rent.  SEND does not own the vacant lot to the south; it apparently remains under foreclosure proceedings, but the CDC hopes to purchase it for further expansion of the Flats at a later point in time.

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Meanwhile, the lot for Phase II awaits, just a half-block away, at the intersection of East and Orange Streets.

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SEND also owns the squat, boarded-up duplex home adjacent to the vacant lot.  When the team is ready to begin Phase II, it will demolish the house for further expansion of the Flats.

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Construction of Phase II might leave the block looking a bit lopsided, with new construction overwhelming the old.  Only two traditional houses will survive, seen in the middle of the photo below (behind the one-story boarded house).

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Bearing that in mind, it may be more appropriate in the long run for some of the East Street flats to function as unattached housing.  It may also be prudent for the Phase II to adopt a slightly different design or (at the very least) color scheme, to avoid the development from looking like a contrivance that sandwiches the “organic” vintage homes.  I would never expect a mild concern such as this to warrant a redesign though.  I am very pleased with the smart compromises the East Street Flats made: wisely including little to no setbacks (particularly on the Sanders Street frontage), but recognizing that a corner building doesn’t appeal to most residential tenants these days, unless the layout shifts the entrance door away from the absolute corner of the parcel.  I have a feeling these buildings will, over the long haul, turn a few heads in an otherwise still fairly run-down part of this transitioning neighborhood—which is exactly SEND’s goal.  Opportunities for infill or renovation in both Fountain Square and Bates-Hendricks still abound, but smart, subtle developments such as these may prove the perfect procedure for priming the pump.

 

 

12 Responses to “ “SEND new construction: multi-unit infill in two emerging neighborhoods.”

  1. Brandon says:

    I like these infill projects. This neighborhood needs to continue to build with compact and density in mind!

  2. Anthony jackson says:

    Love this type of development in indy especially the multy colors, This also reminds me of the 25th and delaware units ,and across the city like the san dieagos ,nyc,la, denver, chicago etc. indy is finally there when it comes to this type and other developments.

  3. Jeffrey C says:

    I do like the look, but the multi-color and geometric shapes seems to be the default for so many of these new developments. Not sure how I feel about that in the long run.

  4. Matt says:

    Love the design on these, and I’m sure they’ll look better when the second phases are added, too. My only complaint is the distance separating them – why not build dense population centers up side by side? It seems like there are plenty of empty lots around Shelby Street where a truly walkable townhouse neighborhood could take shape, instead of placing these projects in isolation.

  5. Eric says:

    I agree with your assessment of the ground floor. They’re neither residential or commercial. If it is to be residential, they’re already setback a few feet but you’d want it raised with a stoop or some fencing to provide a safety/privacy to the front door. If it is to be commercial, you want much more transparency on the ground floor to display merchandise. Best case scenario is that these are live-work offices. You don’t have to have ground floor retail as the city demands often, and the live-work office tenant doesn’t necessarily have to be the same person as the resident is seperate entries are provided.

  6. That enormous concrete driveway/parking pad in the back of the Carburetor Lofts is a tragedy, it looks to be as big if not bigger than the building itself, and for what? With the amount of space that’s there, you could have a detached garage (start off with a simple parking pad, maybe even design the garage and build the foundations, but let the owner build it out later if they want) and a decent little back yard or patio. That would be something worth looking at from those second floor balconies instead of a monolithic expanse of concrete.

    I think from a live-work perspective that downstairs bonus room, as it is, works as a small office or meeting room. If you prefer to do your office work upstairs, then you reserve the downstairs room for meeting with clients, so you don’t have to keep the rest of the place immaculately clean. The office/parlor use seems to fit better with the overall typology expressed on the exterior, which discourages walking along the face of the building with the smallish windows and the use of individual sidewalks to each door.

  7. Idyllic Indy says:

    The East Street Flats are a pretty good example of placing modern infill in a traditional neighborhood.

    The Carburetor Lofts, on the other hand, is a terribly designed project for this location on so many levels. The low density/intensity of providing three very small apartment units on this parcel, literally just dozens of steps from the Square, is a real waste. This prime location should’ve been used for an extension of the commercial district coming south from the Square, matching the revitalization that has been occurring more organically across the street with new office and restaurant/pub tenants in recent years.

    This project is a glaring example of what can happen when government funds get handed out without proper accountability over what is produced. The City handed out more than $600,000 of federal funds to produce three 1-bedroom apartments. Why? Because SEND had originally planned to use said funds to build a three-story mixed-use building with ground floor retail and sixteen or so apartments on the upper levels. But when they didn’t get the plans developed in time to meet a federal deadline, the City allowed them to use the same amount funds to drop this three-unit building on the site, for which SEND already had the set of plans in hand, rather than reallocate the money to a better designed project in Indy, or have HUD reallocate it to another city. This explains why this project doesn’t seem to fit well on this site, especially with the super long driveways in the rear.

  8. Thanks as always for the comments. It sounds like there’s near unanimity that the East Street Flats work better than the Carburetor Lofts. To those who only skimmed my lengthy article, bear in mind: the Carburetor Lofts, operating in a relative architectural void, encountered little to no opposition from the neighborhood–a contrast with the East Street Flats. I guess it’s interesting in the long run that the latter appears to be more successful, despite the ostensible compromises on design to meet community expectations.

    Jeffrey, I agree completely with what you’re saying about the garage. Perhaps Phase II will offer a different option: no covered parking but a large first-floor live/work space. That way the clientele can ultimately decide which arrangement they prefer.

    Idyllic, I completely sympathize with your criticisms here if they’re accurate. Are you sure, though that the $600K applies exclusively to these three units, or does it also include the not-yet-built remaining three that will occupy the north portion of the parcel eventually through Phase II? While the completion of those other units will certainly help fill out the space, I agree that it is a huge shame that we sacrificed a 16-unit building simply because of deadlines. But I also recognize that SEND has to be able to deliver to its mission to encourage continual donor support, and if the organization had taken the latter option in the “use it or lose it” ultimatum, everyone would have suffered more greatly in the long run.

  9. Brian says:

    Idyllic Indy, you are exactly right. The Carburetor Lofts are an inappropriate use for the site. Being on Shelby Street, a much more mixed-use building with a true commercial first floor would have been appropriate. I was unaware that a previous mixed-use concept was planned by SEND.

    The setbacks create a residential feel to the units and the lack of glazing, as has previously mentioned, continues the development of this project as residential, not lending itself well to commercial or office use.

    If we had a more appropriate zoning code, this building would not have been able to be built in its current design. These types of developments are so important for neighborhoods like Fountain Square, as this is the first new construction along that commercial stretch in quite some time. These projects can set the tone and precedent for future development. This is not the precedent we want to see set…much too residential in nature. This is a project that would have been much more appropriate further north on Shelby Street, within a more residential context with a small mix of commercial structures.

    The East Street Flats are much more appropriate for their site, as they are residential in scale and massing, fitting it with their primarily residential surroundings.

  10. Insider says:

    Just to be clear, SEND used a good portion of the NSP funds to acquire the land fronting on Shelby. The building where the brewery is located was acquired in a separate deal with different funds. Just a little background: SEND learned that Dollar General had plans to buy the former Carburetor Exchange building and then use the space where Carburetor Lofts sits as their parking. SEND decided to purchase the lot and the building thus saving them from Dollar General. At that time no one was really even considering development in the area. In fact, SEND discussed development opportunities for a bigger project with different developers and each of them wanted more subsidy from SEND than was possible. SEND also wanted to develop the site with more retail presence on the first floor, but the NSP funds and budget constraints prohibited from doing so. So they proceeded with the resources they had available to develop the project that’s there today given the market realities at the time. I think SEND astutely left it open for future phases to increase the density when the market was better. It’s certainly not perfect, but better than a Dollar General and generally in keeping with the scale and use of what’s existing across the street. SEND also wasn’t keen on the garages or the parking space behind the building, but again, in order to get the rents needed to support the project as principally residential, garages were necessary. Given the market constraints, budgetary needs, NSP requirements and other externalities I think it turned out fairly well, especially considering the alternative.

  11. Idyllic Indy says:

    I apologize and stand corrected in that SEND did use about $120,000 of the $600,000 of funds to acquire the site on which the three one-bedroom townhouses were constructed. Nonetheless, a $600,000 subsidy (with $480,000 toward construction) to develop three one-bedroom units is a gross waste of taxpayer funds, in my opinion. The foolishness of the oversubsidization is magnified when it goes toward the development of a project with a very questionable design that underutilizes the site.

    I don’t understand the comment from Insider about the extra long and dubiously useful driveways being a necessary evil in order to bring in the rents to support the project. With $600,000 of government funds, I would certainly hope that there is no debt to service, so even a low rent should be more than enough to simply maintain the property.

    Finally, to Mr. McAfee, I appreciate the time and effort you put into this piece. You noted that SEND didn’t need to make any design modifications to the Carburetor Lofts project in order to placate neighborhood concerns as they needed to do at East Street Flats, however, I don’t believe you noted the difference in how the two projects were permitted. The public had leverage to review and comment on the East Street Flats project because a rezoning and/or variances were needed to permit the project. I believe the Carburetor Lofts project was built by right meeting the development standards of the site’s existing C-2 zoning classification. Therefore, I don’t think the public had any opportunity to review and comment on Carburetor Lofts. That tends to make a big difference. I think we can all agree that our existing zoning code is written to churn out bad development and needs to be changed drastically, so there should be no presumption of it being a well designed project based upon meeting the zoning code.

    My bottom line assessment is that they should’ve been able to put together a much better, higher intensity project for the amount of subsidy provided. And if they couldn’t do that, then they should’ve waited until that could be achieved. Sometimes nothing (temporarily) really is better than something, or in this case, any old thing.

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