A few years ago, I reported on what might at the time have seen like a pretty run-of-the-mill transaction: the Marott Center downtown getting sold by its law-firm owners to a company known as Gershman Partners. It was a long-established, smartly preserved building along Massachusetts Avenue that survived from its heyday. And at the end of 2013, it changed hands.
No big deal, right? The crux of the matter is that a the law partners who had refurbished and then owned Marott Center for years turned the property over to real estate interests. At that point in time, Marott was just an office building with a pharmacy (but not a drug store) at the storefront. It didn’t really have much engagement with the rest of the burgeoning retail and entertainment options along the corridor, and the owners kept the curtains drawn 95% of the time. Additionally, the owners retained an enormous parking lot that comprised close to 50% of the triangular shaped block. In essence, prime real estate failed to live up to its full potential. And I speculated that, under new ownership, this fine building could spur a redevelopment so that the expansive surrounding parking lot and first floor storefront space could get put to better use.
I was right, and several months later, Kevin here at Urban Indy reported on a proposal for the parking lot immediately to the east of Marott, with some smartly poised infill that would help expand Massachusetts Avenue’s storefront presence, which, though significantly less spotty than it was even just five years ago, still has its fair share of gaps. And here we are in late 2016:
Within the next few months, we’ll be witnessing the opening of The Marietta, a four-story building physically connected to the Marott, which has already secured a high-profile eatery in part of the first-floor retail space. Interestingly, amidst all the apartments getting built in the area, Gershman Partners has decided to brand the remaining three floors to attract office tenants—a potentially wise decision that could help balance what could eventually prove an overinvestment in residential units downtown. (Though, at this point, it remains a risky decision, considering that demand for office space downtown remains soft.)
Within a few months, The Marietta’s completion will help add a greater density of activity to the block, but the investment here is about more than just the infill. Gershman is shelling out quite a bit to upgrade the Marott Center as well.
For decades after the renovation, the Marott prevailed as a reticent contributor to the neighborhood’s revitalization. It looked nice, it promoted the urban street wall, it retained steady office tenants. But everyone just walked past it on their way to Bazbeaux or Bakersfield or Stout’s Shoes. It was little more than a bland office building. Concomitant with the opening of the Marietta, the Marott Center will begin hosting restaurant/retail tenants on its main floor, for the first time in who knows how long.
Broad Ripple standby The Garden Table will be opening its second location in the first floor. Another potential awaits the eastern half of the building.
One other smart aspect to this redevelopment is the interplay between Marott and the Marietta, and that’s where this blog article treads into more unfamiliar territory. Mimicking the older building’s street wall isn’t so difficult, and scaling the new building appropriately will make it a more attractive sell for the neighborhood in general. However, the previous owners of the Marott punched windows on the side of the building—a side that, many decades ago, remained covered by the adjacent structure. But since that structure faced the wrecking ball, all that’s left has been a parking lot. So, until this redevelopment, the corner view of the Marott looked like this:
Understandably, the previous owners had little at stake in punching holes in the side walls to create all those windows. But it apparently never occurred to anyone at the time: what if land values increased some day to the point that it may again prove wise to redevelop the lot? Will we refuse to do so in the interest of natural light and an asphalt view for those Marott tenants?
Well, the developers found a way to reconcile this.
The section of the Marietta that directly abuts the Marott Center will feature a glassy mini-atrium, providing the connective tissue for three of the upper levels in the Marott. It should salvage most of the natural light without precluding any development opportunity. I suspect this mini-atrium won’t easily function as leasable space, but if I’m wrong, then the developers and their architect are cleverer than I imagined.
In fairness, the Marietta isn’t developing the entirety of this block; much of the remaining Vermont Street frontage will remain a parking lot, as will the intersection of Vermont and Delaware streets. But it’s a smart means of providing infill to one of downtown Indianapolis’s triangular parcels, all too many of which are languishing as surface parking. Just take a look at a few others down the street.
Less than a decade old, the Kurt Vonnegut mural along the Lockerbie Lofts building has already earned the coveted and overused adjective “iconic” to describe the representation of the city’s most consistently loved and debated fiction writer. It regularly appears in promotional branding for the city. Tons of visitors get their photos taken in front of it. Carefully crafted by Pamela Bliss, the mural Kurt couldn’t look more grandfatherly if he tried. But Kurt also presides over a big slab of surface parking along Mass Ave.
Someday, if we’re lucky, a developer will buy this land and turn it into something more interesting and valuable. But not, I suspect, without considerable protest among the community. How dare you hide Kurt! And, of all things, hide him behind prefab concrete, EIFS, or—if we’re really lucky—masonry? It’s an insult not just to the man himself but to Ms. Bliss.
My assertion here may prove a bit controversial, especially since it’s only speculative at this point. But, if development interests end up threatening a mural, the development interests need to win. Hands down. Murals on blank party walls serve their most powerful purpose as a concealant, helping to divert attention away from the fact that another building once stood on the space where we can now gaze upon a mural. The curator of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program (the largest of such programs in the nation, and possibly the world) acknowledged this to me many years ago: she has witnessed the burial of many fine artistic renderings by newly proposed infill projects. While the loss can elicit some powerful emotions, she recognized that the intended uses for that exposed side was to serve as a party wall for an adjacent building—not a canvas for a painting. Meanwhile, I blogged at American Dirt on a “temporary mural” along a blank wall in Detroit that was intended to serve as a removable placeholder until infill development could take place.
Thus, someday we may have to bid adieu to this magnificent view of Kurt. But all is not lost: Kurt faces a traffic lane in addition to a parking lot.
It’s possible that any redevelopment may wish to save this lane as a sort of alley, preserving both the mural and the adjacent windows that were punched out of the side wall. Or maybe the redevelopment can preserve both Kurt and the adjacent windows through an atrium, a la The Marietta. But even if our city’s laureate novelist gets nearly or completely shrouded someday by an adjacent building, I don’t think he’d grumble. The notorious crank always had a somewhat jaded view toward fame and his cult following; he might have actually preferred a self-nullifying gesture, watching the adjacent building go up with a bemused smirk.
Regardless the fate of this mural, it has prompted another more recent incarnation just a few hundred feet away, along the Davlan Building.
Though born in Toledo, the nonagenarian poet, playwright and children’s writer Mari Evans cultivated most of her celebrated career in Indianapolis, where she lives to this day. Much of her poetry served as an inspirational impetus for the Black Arts Movement. The bold pink of her jacket creates a powerful contrast to the burgundy brick upon which artist Michael Jordan (ALKEMI) painted it earlier this year, so in most regards it asserts a more powerful presence than Vonnegut nearby. But, like Vonnegut, it fronts a parking lot.
It’s an enormous lot—much bigger than the lot Vonnegut faces.
And, like its counterparts, the Mari Evans mural presides over land along Mass Ave that has steadily risen in value over the years. With fewer windows along the side wall, an infill project won’t restrict the views of nearly as many tenants in the Davlan Building.
Unless The Marietta flops and fails to absorb the office space quickly, it’s probably only a matter of time before Vonnegut and Evans face development pressure. While any redevelopment could strive to save both murals through careful architectural integration of old and new, such a proposal would still essentially remove the murals from conventional public view. Then again, neither mural exists on or engages with overt public space in their current forms. And, by placing the murals under a roof and protecting them from sunlight or the elements, infill development may actual help increase their longevity. Artist Pamela Bliss has already “touched up” her Vonnegut mural shortly after its fifth birthday.
All three of these sites—the Marietta, the Vonnegut, the Evans—offer tremendous infill opportunities, one of which is coming into full fruition. It is up for boosters in the Mass Ave area, as well as downtown economic development interests in general, to perpetuate this argument and help restore an already successful commercial corridor to its early 20th century heyday.