Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The College Avenue Interurban: Stop-by-Stop Snapshots, Part II.

My previous blog post used College Avenue as a launchpad for exploring how Indianapolis had once earned the moniker “Interurban Capital of the World”. College Avenue, heading from downtown northward to Broad Ripple Village and beyond, was one of many routes of this predecessor to today’s light rail that used Indy as a hub. The College Avenue interurban deserves special recognition because a reasonable amount of architecture survives that clearly served the old interurban stops, where passengers would disembark and walk to shops, offices, or housing by foot. In the earlier post I traced some of the most obvious remnants of those old interurban stops, from downtown (Michigan Street) up the vast east-west arterial of 38th Street. Today I will continue northward, through some of the more affluent and stable neighborhoods of the city, which in turn demonstrate the healthiest commercial nodes that owe their beginnings to the College Avenue interurban.

4200 North


Crossing 38th Street along College Avenue, the passenger would enter the verdant Meridian Kessler neighborhood. College Avenue here serves as a bit of a dividing line between the largely wealthy portion to the west and the far less wealthy east. The commercial presence of the historic interurban has given way to civic uses, such as the relatively pedestrian scaled library in the southwest corner. Freemason Hall to the northwest remains the strongest surviving example of historic architecture, with retail at the ground level; two other corners now consist of parking lots.

4600 North


No doubt much of the architecture that accommodated this interurban stop has faced the wrecking ball, but the low-rise commercial structure on the northeast corner survives. Garuda, the Indonesian restaurant to the far right in the second photo, has apparently faced many permitting barriers but is finally slated to open in mid-April. As the economy improves, the southwest corner offers an excellent redevelopment opportunity in what is essentially an economically healthy area.

4900 North


This may be the first interurban stop in which more than fifty percent of the historic commercial architecture survives. Until recently, it was still an economic laggard in terms of retail desirability, but it has sparked interest in the past few years with some new tenants targeting the generally affluent population living nearby, including a new tasting room for the Upland Brewery, and Recess, a local restaurant. Only the southeast corner seems to have completely faced the bulldozer, hosting a more contemporary structure with parking out front.

This intersection is worth further recognition, for the evidence that developers have been sniffing around it for quite some time.
Part of the northwest corner (the part fronting College Avenue) was sacrificed for a building with parking out front, but now both it and the residences to the north are subject to re-evaluation for a mixed-use, urban infill project, which likely will stimulate further interest and discussion when the economy improves. For those who would like to see the proposal featured in this sign replace the blighted current structure, I encourage you to sign this petition in support of The Uptown.

5200 North

By most metrics, this interurban stop offers what most of the others can hope to achieve—a fully functional retail node that often generates a fair amount of foot traffic. Only the southeast corner, home of Sparkle Cleaners, features a setback with parking out front, but the parking is modest and does not radically weaken the character that makes this intersection a pedestrian scaled node. (Granted, the Habig Garden Shop probably does not date from the interurban, but at least it's scaled in accordance with pedestrian traffic.) Most of the storefronts are occupied with local establishments, some of which have been there for decades. This northern portion of the Meridian Kessler neighborhood never went into economic decline, and thus the retail structures have not faced the sort of economic hardship that might otherwise justify their demolition.

5400 North


This lively node, just two blocks north of the previous, has captured the character which the developers of The Uptown Indy clearly hope to replicate at other College Avenue intersections. Even the southwest corner, with cars out front of Moe and Johnny’s, still manages to retain the feel of a neighborhood retail node fully approachable by pedestrians. The relative scarcity of off-street parking has not dimmed the popularity of these locations. The northeast corner, home of the grocer Fresh Market, elicited some disappointment to urbanists when this redevelopment took place a few years ago because of the prominently visible parking lot, but the structure remains generally inviting to foot traffic. The biggest disappointment is that the front setback with parking squandered the opportunity for alfresco seating or casual eating that would have enhanced the intersection far more than a parking lot.

5950 North


Apparently the two southern corners of College Avenue’s intersection with Kessler Boulevard East Drive met their demise to more auto-oriented structures, housing a mechanic and veterinary office at this point. Meanwhile, the older structure on the northeast corner still offers parking out front. Thus, this intersection has less pedestrian activity than its two predecessors, but it still houses some local establishments clearly targeting the neighborhood. Had the Broad Ripple Animal Clinic at the southeast corner opened just a few years later when design considerations were more en vogue, it might have faced greater scrutiny by activists in the neighborhood.

6300 North


In all likelihood, two of the three corners here at College Avenue, Broad Ripple Avenue, and Westfield Boulevard lost their historic architecture to gas stations and drive-thru banks, while another corner hosts part of the Central Canal and a drugstore. But the one corner that survives (the southeast) comprises the heart of Broad Ripple Village, long the center of Indianapolis pedestrian activity and nightlife, even when downtown Indianapolis rolled up its sidewalks after dark. A century ago, Broad Ripple was a weekend retreat for city dwellers before it was absorbed into the city limits, and it remains a popular leisure destination to this day. The economy has put a bit of a dent in the occupancy levels of some of the storefronts, but this prominent corner recently saw Barley Island Brewhouse sign on to the neighborhood’s famously pricey leases. These pictures hardly capture it (try the Google Streetview instead if you are unfamiliar with area), but the pedestrian scale continues along Broad Ripple Avenue and has solidified the neighborhood as one of the city’s most stable—yet time and again, elsewhere in the city, remonstrators fight developments that employ a density and scale similar to Broad Ripple. (The Uptown Indy development featured earlier has already faced severe hurdles.) Two inert gas stations in the neighborhood should also offer opportunities for urban infill, if the economy improves and the community can buy into the notion that densification will only enhance Broad Ripple’s desirability (and their property values).

6400 North


A block north, and we’re more or less to the end of the line, or at least to the point where the interurban made frequent, clearly visible stops. Even here, the character seems overwhelmingly auto-oriented and suburban, though a few older structures suggest this intersection’s genesis falls within Broad Ripple’s pedestrian scaled sphere of influence. The American Legion building at the southeast corner clearly derives from a less auto dominated era, yet it has largely sealed itself off from the outside world; the appearance of near abandonment has resulted in a structure that routinely has to fend off graffiti artists.
Beyond this intersection, the character of College Avenue quickly becomes low-density and suburban, as it enters the verdant, wealthy Meridian Hills and Williams Creek neighborhoods. Broad Ripple represents the culminating point, as far as the historic commercial nodes are concerned. The general trajectory of College Avenue’s interurban stops reveals that both the economic health and condition of the architecture improve as one travels farther away from the city center; this reflects the decentralizing patterns of most American cities over the past century. But in recent years, even the most desolate of College Avenue’s old nodes have attracted increasing public interest; many members of the College Avenue Neighborhood Development Organization have worked together to maintain
a Ning site informing the community of further revitalization efforts.

But is the reawakened activism for the culture of the College Avenue interurban anything more than second life for a certain aesthetic construct within the built environment, where everything old is new again? Is it any different than the rediscovery of our historic city centers over the past twenty years, or the renewed popularity of tight jeans among hipsters? Time will only tell if the College Avenue corridor undergoes a full-scale revitalization across all the old interurban stops, and even more time will only tell if such a revitalization is sustainable. But it behooves the economic development leaders of the neighborhoods that straddle this historic Indianapolis corridor to ride the current wave of curiosity and nostalgia, which have helped transform some of these intersections into the most attractive incubators for small businesses (particularly local restaurants) in the entire metro. A transit line may serve as a catalyst for further regeneration, but my guess is it will happen regardless of whether College Avenue ever witnesses something like an interurban. These are the strip malls of yesteryear, while strip malls are the retail archetype of yesterday. And in a culture that thrives on perpetual reinvention, yesterday is old hat, while yesteryear is positively vintage.

9 comments:

cdc guy said...

Great post. I must admit to a certain bias (having lived nearly 25 years in three different places within a couple of blocks of this part of College): it's my favorite part of Indianapolis. I've walked its streets, shopped its stores, and eaten a meal or two there.

The corner interurban stops got filled up with gas stations in the 20s-40s; Habig, Sparkle, BRAC, Moe & Johnny's and the corner parking lot of Chase all housed gas stations 60-70 years ago.

Because the neighborhoods were already built out when the car era blossomed, that was the only place to put the service stations after zoning regulations came into effect.

Without restrictive zoning and a watchful neighborhood association (since the 70s), I suspect College would look more like Keystone today. I know suburban-style single-use zoning is a popular target of Indy bloggers, but in this case I think it saved College.

AmericanDirt said...

Interesting observation, CDC Guy. I wonder if traffic on College Avenue really ever justified the widening that Keystone has undergone (not that a need for widening has stopped Indy's leadership in the past). And if what you say in your last paragraph is true, it's proof that, like so many regions of taste, NIMBY-ism and Euclidean zoning are only truly objectionable to urbanists because people usually employ them in a matter that urbanists dislike.

It kind of reminds me of the two Massachusetts mill cities I think I mentioned in the past: Lowell and Lawrence. Lawrence was the "progressive" one, using urban renewal to clear those useless old vacant factory buildings in the 1960s and 70s. Lowell didn't have its act together and sat on them. Today, Lowell stands a far greater chance of revitalization because of its terrific building stock, while Lawrence is still floundering. Both Lowell and the College Avenue community were out of step with fashion: at the time, bulldozing old properties to accommodate cars seemed like the right thing to do. But now Lowell and College Ave are stronger than their counterparts as a result.

cdc guy said...

Just look at development between Kessler and White River along College since 1970, the era of Washington Twp. growth: The street widens out heading toward the big "new" (60s or 70s era?) College Ave. bridge.

Houses were torn down or converted, to create an overwhelmingly commercial zone, and it continues unabated. There are two small commercial strips with parking in front. It is no coincidence (IMO) that happened where MKNA ends.

fisherpdx said...

I vaguely remember a police precinct house at either 46th or 49th back in the late 80's. I think it was moved in to help minimize the crime at the time, does any one remember this?

AmericanDirt said...

Fisherpdx--
I wasn't really old enough to be attuned to that type of thing at that point, but I wouldn't be surprised if Meridian-Kessler was contending with an upsurge in crime in the late 1980s, particularly in the area around College and 46th. It remains a somewhat divided part of the neighborhood to this day, though I'd generally say the crime rate is not particularly high (although very close to areas which do still see frequent crimes).

cdc guy said...

North District Police HQ moved from BR Park to 42nd & College in the late 1980s. (It moved out again with the police merger earlier in this decade.)

The building, a blue one-story just north of the NE corner of 42nd, is the former Uptown Theater.

haris said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JP said...

Nice photo snapshots you have there. The neighborhood has improved. We once lived hear but just for a few months until we left for London. I miss the place and the suburb bits.I will make sure to visit the place next year.

-JP
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