Focus Group Ponders the Drake’s Future

Illustration © Anna Brown-Mitchell. Used with permission.

by Connie Zeigler

Time will tell if a holding company for the Meridian Street properties owned by The Children’s Museum—TRex Enterprises LLC, named for the gigantic killing-machine dinosaur—may have bitten off more than it can chew when it comes to The Drake apartment building.

Brian Statz, The Children’s Museum (TCM) vice president of operations and general counsel, and “manager” for TRex, says the museum purchased the historic building and most of the rest of the west side of the 3000 block of North Meridian Street, in order to “control the property around us, or have a say in its use.”

Initially the museum continued to operate the once stunning but increasingly shabby building as apartments. But maintenance and upkeep of the almost 90-year-old building was too much for TRex, resulting in vacating of the building last year.

Now that the tenants are gone, TCM and TRex must determine what to do with the impressive eight-story Tudor Revival–style building. To that end, the museum formed a “focus group of neighborhood leaders” to give their input on what they would like to see happen to The Drake and how they would like to see those goals accomplished, according to Statz. Along with local residents who have participated in the museum’s neighborhood development working group, the focus group includes Mark Dollase, vice president of preservation services for Indiana Landmarks.

The task force met in early May 2017. Dollase says “keeping the building in place is important” because “Meridian Street is a gateway to downtown” and The Drake is architecturally significant. In fact, he thinks the building is probably eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. But it’s important to note that The Drake isn’t yet listed on the National Register—something that TCM and TRex would have to agree to as owners. And, even if it were to be listed, the National Register doesn’t protect a property from the actions of its private owners. So, the owners could alter the use, completely rehab, or even demolish the building if they chose to do so.

But is demolition a potential option for The Drake? Yes, says Lorraine Phillips Vavul, the former president of Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis, HUNI. She attended the focus group meeting, and said that the group suggested to TRex the following uses for the building:

  • Continue as an apartment building with either affordable or market-rate rents
  • Mixed-Use, i.e. apartments and office space; or all office space for museum use
  • Hotel
  • As a last choice, demolition

Vavul’s takeaway from the group meeting was that “the Museum is open to saving the building as long as they can find the resources to do so.”

Prior to the task force meeting, Dollase had provided TCM/TRex with a list of about a dozen developers that he thought might be interested and capable of taking on a redevelopment of a historic building of The Drake’s size and condition. Statz says he contacted the firms on that list and only two expressed interest and toured the building. Only one of those two firms has continued to show interest and is reportedly preparing a proposal. At the task force meeting, Dollase suggested Statz might contact at least one other firm that has recently completed successful redevelopments of historic properties in Indianapolis.

Statz says TCM/TRex is “not looking to sell” The Drake, so any redevelopment would have to take place with TRex retaining control of the building. Currently, TRex is looking for bids for renovation but is also seeking bids for demolition. Statz will eventually compile prices and proposals, meet at least one more time with the focus group, and ultimately “present a menu of options to management.”

Statz maintains that while the museum has “a plan for all our property” there is no overall master plan for the land it owns along North Meridian Street. No “formal step by step” outline or complete campus drawing is secreted away and driving what might happen with The Drake. The museum is “considering all potential uses, taking input from the task force and ultimately will make the best decision for the museum.” Does the best decision for the museum boil down to cost? Not necessarily, says Statz; while “cost is a consideration, [it’s] not the only consideration.”

Related: What’s in Store for the Drake?

That should be good news to the preservation-minded members of the task force and the community. Dollase hopes the task force “is the beginning of a conversation that’s going to go somewhere, versus resulting in a predetermined outcome”—demolition. He hopes TRex will consider looking for funding options that could bring about renovation/rehabilitation, perhaps through historic tax credits.

Vavul, who lives in the nearby Historic Meridian Park neighborhood, thinks of TCM as a good neighbor and believes TCM/TRex has shown its commitment to the neighborhood and historic preservation by putting money into stabilizing the Harry Stutz house, also owned by TCM/TRex, a bit further north on Meridian Street. She has faith that TCM is “definitely sensitive to our shared architectural history and saving important buildings.” But TRex has also demolished an apartment complex, The Whitestone, at 3140 N. Meridian Street, demonstrating that demolition is an option it might choose.

For now, Statz says TRex will take the time that’s needed to come up with the best solution: “[N]o decision has been made yet.” Is there a deadline to make the call on The Drake’s future, even a ballpark deadline? No, according to Statz. “We want to be respectful of our neighbors as we make the decision.”

Historian Connie Zeigler is a consultant who writes frequently about historic preservation issues. Her website is cresourcesinc.com

A version of this article appeared in the June/July ’17 issue of the magazine.

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