A Reprieve for the Drake

DMD photo.

by Thomas P. Healy

One of Midtown’s last remaining historic Meridian Street high-rise apartment buildings dodged the wrecking ball in December.

On Dec. 16, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the City of Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD) jointly issued a Request for Information (RFI) [PDF] “seeking development teams focused on the thoughtful rehabilitation and/or adaptive reuse” of the Drake Apartments, 3060 N. Meridian St.

In a statement issued at the time of the announcement, Brian Statz, the museum’s vice president of operations and general counsel, said, “The Children’s Museum is excited for this unique opportunity to team up with the City.”

DMD director Emily Mack said in an interview that the RFI was the result of the City working closely with the property owner. “The museum and DMD partnered to collaboratively work on the RFI,” she said.

Historic preservationist Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, welcomed the joint effort. “We’re encouraged that they had a positive dialogue and a desire to come up with a win-win situation,” he said.

A Path to Collaboration

Getting to the RFI required balancing the need to appease an anchor institution with a desire to uphold transit-oriented development plans for the Red Line corridor.

Neighbors, preservationists, and DMD were all taken aback in July when the museum announced its intentions to demolish the Drake and its neighbor, the former Salvation Army building.

ADDITIONAL COVERAGE: Children’s Museum to Raze North Meridian Properties.

At the Sept. 4, 2019, meeting of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC), DMD staff took steps to legally interrupt those intentions. This involved seeking approval of a declaratory resolution—a legal statement of intent—to designate the Drake Apartments Historic Area and adopt it into the Marion County Register of Historic Places. DMD also sought approval for the Historic Area Plan prepared by City staff.

Describing its importance, DMD staff wrote: “The Drake apartment building is significant for its architecture, its association with apartment construction in the City of Indianapolis in the 20th century, and for its association with its architect, H. Ziegler Dietz. It is an intact example of luxury tower apartment buildings from this period that were popular on the north side of Indianapolis.”

With IHPC approval, the property owner was constrained from receiving the required demolition permit. Approval set the stage for DMD to proceed to the next legal step: a confirmatory resolution by the Metropolitan Development Commission (MDC) to adopt the Historic Area Preservation Plan [PDF] for the Drake Apartment building as part of Marion County’s Comprehensive Plan of Marion County, Indiana. Such adoption would enshrine the property and its preservation plan in the City’s guiding legal land use document.

Establishing a locally protected historic district creates a layer of protection for buildings such as the Drake and further complicates the property owner’s likelihood of receiving a demolition permit. According to statute, historic building/property owners must abide by rules governing changes to a property such as painting, renovation, site work, and/or new construction.

The move succeeded in bringing the museum together with DMD to discuss a collaborative RFI process.

As a sign of good faith, DMD placed the resolution on the MDC’s Nov. 6 meeting agenda but asked for, and received, a continuance until the Commission’s March 4, 2020, meeting.

Goals and Objectives

Two preservation objectives were identified in the plan and have been included in the RFI:

  •  “The subject structures, exterior features of the site and architectural and historic character thereof shall be preserved as a significant resource of Indianapolis and Marion County.
  • Encourage adaptive reuse/ redevelopment of the historic Drake Apartment Building that retains and preserves the exterior features of the structures, and not demolition of the historic Drake Apartment Building and its historic garage on the site.”

After the museum asked tenants to move out in November 2016 due to safety concerns, Statz said it formed a focus group of neighborhood leaders and Indiana Landmarks staff in May 2017. “We wanted other inputs on possibilities for the building so we formed a focus group to talk through options” he said.

Davis said Indiana Landmarks and other members of the focus group urged the museum to embark on a Request for Proposal (RFP) process: “We provided names of developers to the museum and they put out the RFP—twice—but received only one proposal.” While the project was attractive and generated interest, potential developers needed a commitment from the museum for millions of dollars to undertake repairs and upgrades—something the museum was unwilling to do.

Developer Incentives

The RFI changes that dynamic by listing a range of subsidies and potential resources the City is willing to make available to a prospective developer. DMD’s Mack likens it to a “menu.” “It outlines what tools may be available depending on the type of development that’s proposed,” she said.

Listed among the many potential tools in the RFI are a range of tax credits, affordable housing incentives, equitable transit-oriented development funds, or the creation of a single-site tax increment financing area.

Technical assistance from DMD staff and the waiving of filing fees are also on the menu. “We did include gratis filings with the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission or DMD current planning for rezoning,” Mack said. “If there needs to be variances of development standards, or replatting in order to facilitate that rehab and reuse, just waiving those fees could be a big help.”

Marsh Davis agrees. “Those incentives are essential to making these kinds of projects happen. I applaud the City for designating the property as a local landmark and also for working with the museum to come up with a very positive and hopefully attractive package.”

According to the RFI, the museum will retain ownership of the site but unlike in its previous RFPs, it has agreed in principle to a long-term lease with a potential developer. That’s not necessarily unusual, says DMD’s Mack. “There’s a precedent for that on one of the museum’s other properties, the Illinois Place apartments.” Built in 2013 on the site of the former Winona Hospital, the museum partnered with TWG Development LLC on the project that includes 50 affordable housing units as well as public greenspace.

The City was involved in acquiring the property, demolishing the building, and remediating the site. It worked with the museum and TWG to assemble a range of local and federal tax credits and other incentives to spur development of a site that had been vacant for many years.

While the RFI includes the museum’s stipulation from previous RFPs that any redevelopment not require funds from the nonprofit, it includes one additional clause. “The Children’s Museum/T-Rex will be reimbursed for property taxes, insurance costs, maintenance costs, and utilities spent on the property from December 2016 (when the property was vacated) until present date.”

The museum had previously estimated that it spent $200,000 annually on such expenses for both the Drake and the Salvation Army properties. Asked if such a financial obligation might give a potential developer pause, Emily Mack observed, “It was a collaborative partnership and as property owner they asked for this to be included. There are other things we can do to help offset some of those costs.”

The museum has had other expenses related to its properties. Brian Statz said that both the Drake and former Salvation Army buildings have been secured for the winter and that asbestos abatement has occurred.

Mack sees this as a good thing and said the partners will collaboratively form a selection committee that will include reps from the museum and the City. “We often include other stakeholders in our review and selection committees,” she said. With a Feb. 21 due date for proposals, Mack estimated that the review committee should be assembled by early March to look over submissions. “We’ll bring development teams in and learn more about their proposal and ask questions. Then the review committee collaboratively determines the best project, she said. “If we found a developer that we all felt comfortable with we could move forward.”

View the RFI here.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of the magazine.