David Hoppe

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:: Money talking in Broad Ripple

Sounds like more than spare change

by David Hoppe

I first heard about it from the guy who cuts my hair. Van Kirby’s business is located on College, across the street from the zombified Shell station that Browning Investments wants to take down as part of a large-scale redevelopment project.

Van told me there was a plan to put a high-end grocery store on that Shell station site.

Van has been cutting hair in Broad Ripple Village for years — decades, really — working out of a handsome two-storey house that sits between a Village Pantry and a drive-in bank. He has a history in the neighborhood. For example, there was that time he tried to add another floor to his building. That project was nixed because the powers in the Village thought it would make his building too tall. So Van rolled up his architectural drawings and scrapped his plans.

It’s funny how things can change. Now, just a few years later, Browning Investments wants to build an $18 million mixed-use project across the street that will be at least five stories high, include over 80 apartments, as well as retail stores and a 275-space parking garage. Oh, and that high-end grocery, rumored by some to be a Whole Foods.

This is about as big as deals get in Broad Ripple, a neighborhood known by day for its walkability, small businesses and easy-going atmosphere and, by night, for its bars and air of drunken excess. Maybe it’s the water: Broad Ripple’s close proximity to Indianapolis’ most significant water features, the White River and Central Canal, has encouraged it to create and sustain a kind of alternative identity in an otherwise landlocked city. Before Downtown was cool, you took visitors to Broad Ripple if you wanted them to experience Indy’s hipper side.

I wish I could say that Broad Ripple’s character has something to do with intention, that it’s the way it is because people there have planned it. But that, of course, would fly in the face of what many of us find most charming about the place. A lot of its character comes from the fact that Broad Ripple has been a long-running improvisation acted out between the business owners who make their money in the Village proper, and the residents, who live around it. This makes Broad Ripple a flavorful patchwork of comfort and commerce, with more than a little dynamic tension thrown in for good measure.

There have been many efforts over the years to try and bring an overarching sense of design to this quilt. People who love Broad Ripple have long understood that, however it’s come about, this place is on to something special, something that other cities would love to be able to copy.

But, when it comes to planning, people have always joked that, in Broad Ripple, that’s like herding cats.

It’s no joke now.

Coming as it does as the finishing touches are being applied to the construction of a massive mixed-use parking facility at the intersection of College and Broad Ripple Ave, a building that makes entering Broad Ripple from the east an experience akin to be flushed through a chute, the Browning proposal seems a deliberate attempt to reinvent Broad Ripple as a denser, more vertical urban environment.

This is not an entirely bad way to think about future development in the Village. We live in a city, after all. And if Broad Ripple is to grow, it has to go up – sprawl is not an option.

But the scale of the Browning proposal seems wildly out of whack with its surroundings. That’s not to say that the 1940’s era apartments it would replace are worth saving. They’re an eyesore and need to go. It’s also not an argument against the creation of a larger scale retail store that might serve as a shopping anchor for the Village, although there are plenty of grocery options in the area and the addition of another will not fill an open niche so much as cater to the current foodie craze. There’s already a hole  in what should be the Village’s flagship retail space, across from the new parking facility; Broad Ripple needs a grown-up variety of sustainable retail destinations more than another source for boutique granola.

Ironically, the Browning proposal is the first major initiative to try and actually make something of Broad Ripple’s greatest physical asset, the Central Canal. It’s about time a developer treated the canal as something other than an after-thought. It’s too bad what Browning would build will likely overwhelm, not enhance, this valuable resource.

But the real problem here is even bigger than the potential footprint represented by Browning’s plan. That plan is rushing into a vacuum created by Broad Ripple’s inability over the years — an inability shared by Indianapolis as a whole — to enact meaningful design and zoning guidelines. As long as developers were unwilling to invest in substantial building projects in the Village, this lack of direction didn’t really matter. But now that there’s real money on the table, well, we’re a far cry from those days when adding an extra floor to a two-storey house was considered a serious breach of neighborliness in Broad Ripple.