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:
The second development, in which Phase I is probably in the last quarter of its construction schedule, is known as the East Street Flats.
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.
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—
–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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
It would appear that the narrow patches of land to the north and south of this are now rendered almost useless.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
And here it is in relation to the others:
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.
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:
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.
Meanwhile, the lot for Phase II awaits, just a half-block away, at the intersection of East and Orange Streets.
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.
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).
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.