A proposed $70 million, five-story apartment development is planned along Indiana Avenue, northwest of the historic Madam Walker Legacy Center. But as the development nears a public hearing for approval from the Regional Center Hearing Examiner on Oct. 15, the plan has garnered criticism from neighbors who say developers are ignoring community input and the historic and cultural roots of Indiana Avenue.
Indianapolis-based developer Buckingham Companies is looking to tear down the three-story Walker Plaza building at 719 Indiana Avenue to make room for the proposed apartment building.
The 2.6-acre development will stretch nearly three blocks from the Madam Walker Legacy Center to the Indianapolis Urban League and will include nearly 350 apartment units, a first-floor retail space and a parking structure.
The property is owned by the Walker, which selected Buckingham to develop the site after a request for proposals in 2019.
The pushback from Reclaim Indiana Avenue
Paula Brooks, a third-generation Indianapolis resident, said Black residents established a vibrant social and commercial space along Indiana Avenue and in surrounding areas by the 1890s, and the street was lined with restaurants, jazz clubs, theaters, stores, churches and more.
Brooks grew up on West Street near Indiana Avenue during the 1970s, when many businesses still stood along the Avenue. She remembers shopping at grocery stores, butcher shops and boutiques.
By the 1960s, the Avenue began declining due to urban renewal projects and the construction of Interstate 65, she said. IUPUI also expanded onto Indiana Avenue, and many of the street’s historic buildings were razed in the 1970s and ‘80s as the city made way for skyscrapers. For many, the only reminder of the Indiana Avenue that once was is the historic Walker building.
“For the last several decades, there has been an erasure of Black cultural heritage in the area,” she said. “Young people today have no memory of Indiana Avenue at all.”
Brooks said she is worried the development could continue that erasure.
“Historic Indiana Avenue is at risk of being permanently altered,” she said. “We want something better for Indiana Avenue.”
In response, Brooks helped form Reclaim Indiana Avenue to push back against the Buckingham development. The group has garnered more than 1,000 likes on Facebook.
“Indiana Avenue is ground zero for the battle for Black Indianapolis’ heartbeat,” the group’s Facebook description says. “Today a developer wants to build a massive apartment building to house IUPUI students. Will the dream of wiping out the last vestiges (of) ‘Blackness’ finally succeed?”
Connecting to the Avenue’s cultural heritage
Brooks said she is not opposed to the development, saying she only wants it to be revised so that it better serves the community and reflects the Avenue’s memory and legacy. She said she wants a well-designed building that complements the historical architecture of the neighborhood.
“Indiana Avenue deserves development that reflects its history,” she said. “Not structures that could be found anywhere else in the United States.”
Paul Mullins, a historian and anthropology professor at IUPUI, said many community members want new buildings on the Avenue that harken back to the stylistic elements they remember from the street’s golden decades. He said the Afrocentric, Art Deco-influenced Walker building and historic photos of storefronts, homes and clubs along the Avenue could serve as reference for developers to create what he calls ethnographically informed design that evokes the history and heritage of the street.
“There’s a pattern of developers building standardized structures that aren’t unified with the neighborhood’s needs and history,” he said. “This isn’t what architecture has to be.”
Kristian Stricklen, marketing chair of Madam Walker Legacy Center Board, said the development is making an effort to honor the legacy of the Avenue but will reflect how it exists today.
“From our perspective, it is in line with what is on Indiana Avenue now,” she said.
In a statement to the IndyStar, Buckingham said developers would take the history of the street into consideration.
“The plans pay homage to Indiana Avenue and Madame Walker Theater through architectural design and activation of Indiana Avenue with urban lifestyle retail and residential use, creating a more walkable and connected neighborhood,” the statement said.
Spurring development in the area
Stricklen said the apartment building will complement the Walker and Indiana Avenue and spur additional development in an area that has remained largely undeveloped following urban renewal projects.
“We want to bring a revitalization to the community,” she said. “We are trying to bring Indiana Avenue back to life.”
She said the Walker board also has asked Buckingham to use a minimum of 40% minority-owned contractors and to have a minimum of 20% minority ownership of the project. Buckingham has also said it plans to emphasize “Minority Business Enterprise, Women Business Enterprise, Veteran Business Enterprise and/or Disabled-Owned Business Enterprise participation as a part of the development and construction,” according to the statement from the company.
“It was really important for us to be able to choose our neighbor,” she said. “We want them to be a good neighbor, and we believe that this apartment building will be an asset to the community.”
Communicating with the surrounding community
During a July meeting of the Metropolitan Development Commission, Brooks, the former president and a current board member of the Ransom Place neighborhood, said Buckingham did not reach out to neighbors for input on the development.
“We wanted to work with the developers to make this project serve and align with what the larger community wanted,” she told the IndyStar. “But we soon realized that they were not interested in that.”
But Stricklen said Buckingham and the Walker board have had conversations with neighbors about the proposed plan.
“We wanted to make sure before anything started that we heard from everybody,” she said.
In a statement to the IndyStar, a Buckingham spokesperson said the developers would continue to engage both neighbors and community organizations.
“Over the last several months we have been and will continue to be in communication with Ransom Place Association, IUPUI, Urban League, the Madam Walker Legacy Center, St. Philip’s and the Goodwin Center to ensure the project reflects the overall vision for the Indiana Avenue corridor and are working to schedule a meeting with Reclaim Indiana Avenue and its representatives,” the statement said.
Brooks said the Ransom Place neighborhood association contacted developers in August about speaking with its members about how the development would affect the neighborhood. She also invited Buckingham representatives to discuss the development as part of a virtual town hall that Reclaim Indiana Avenue is currently planning.
Buckingham representatives had a call with the neighborhood association members in August. But Brooks said most neighbors aren’t a part of the neighborhood association and that Buckingham has only communicated with three residents in the association.
“It’s just the bare minimum,” she said.
Mullins said many Avenue residents have long wanted development following initial demolition of the buildings along it. But he said the proposed plan continues a history of giving community members little or no voice in the projects. Following WWII, Mullins said, developers razed nearly all of the near westside without input from the area’s predominantly Black community.
“What you see in Indianapolis is a frustration among neighbors that they’re not involved in the development process in places that are a part of their heritage,” he said. “The people living here have a deep possession of this place and a defense of this heritage because it’s been pried away from them already in so many ways.”
‘These apartments aren’t for us’
Stricklen said the apartments aren’t catering toward a specific group and will not be built with a certain demographic in mind.
However, Indianapolis Business Journal reported that in its filings, Buckingham said it expected the apartments to be occupied by a large percentage of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis students due to its proximity to the campus. The publication also reported that Lacy Johnson, chairman of the Walker’s real estate committee, said the apartments likely will be offered at market-rate prices.
Brooks said she expects the apartments will cater to a younger, whiter, wealthier demographic than the current residents on and around the Avenue.
“These apartments aren’t for us,” she said.
IUPUI also played a role in the decline of the Avenue as it expanded onto the street and now sits in what was once a Black neighborhood. As a result, Brooks said, there is a lack of trust between IUPUI and community members. She is concerned that the development will continue IUPUI’s encroachment into the historic Black neighborhood, she said.
“It’s setting a bad precedent to have IUPUI encroach further on the Avenue given what has happened historically,” she said.
Other development concerns
Brooks is also worried the size of the proposed development will overwhelm the historic Walker building, as well as surrounding historic structures such as the Urban League and St. Phillips Church. The development will be built on the site of Madam Walker’s former home and business at 640 N. West St., which Brooks said disregards the site’s historical significance.
Stricklen said the Walker board has had many conversations with Buckingham to set height restrictions that ensure the proposed development doesn’t overwhelm the Walker.
“It’s our property, and we’re partnering with them,” she said. “So we are making sure the Walker isn’t overshadowed by the apartment building.”
Stricklen said she isn’t concerned about construction on Madam Walker’s business and home because the building was demolished shortly after 1965.
“It was demolished in 1965, and it’s 2020,” Sticklen said. “There hasn’t been anything there in over 55 years.”
After a recent $15 million renovation project, the Walker center reopened in January before the coronavirus pandemic and hosted events such as a Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration and a local tourism promotion featuring David Letterman. For Stricklen, the apartment development project is a means of ensuring the center has the resources to continue its programming for years to come.
“We are going to be able to really sustain the Madam Walker Legacy Center,” she said. “We want the Walker to be sustainable and to thrive.”
Brooks cites other logistical concerns with the proposed apartment complex, including how apartment residents would increase traffic congestion on the area’s already-busy streets.
Stricklen said the Walker board has requested that Buckingham build a parking garage to reduce congestion in neighboring parking lots. A portion of the parking spaces in the structure will also be reserved for the Walker’s staff and patrons.
In a blog post, Mullins wrote that developers may continue plans that he says ignore the community’s stake in development of the Avenue and construct an “uninspired building that intensifies the street’s uninviting character, continues to leaves the Walker Theater isolated, and imagines the Avenue simply as a bottleneck for IUPUI and Medical Center commuters.” But doing so, he writes, risks reducing the Avenue’s heritage to a street no different from any other.
Mullins told IndyStar that Indiana Avenue has become a public space because of the deep sense of belonging and memory residents feel toward the space. As a result, he said, developers can’t treat it like a blank slate for any private development.
Brooks said the development misses an opportunity to create something meaningful that reflects the roots of Black Indianapolis on the Avenue and the emotional connection residents have to the street.
“We can’t bring back the Avenue that once was,” she said. “We can’t go back. But we can create a brighter future for it. We can bring back the life that was once on the Avenue.”
Contact Pulliam Fellow Christine Fernando at firstname.lastname@example.org.