by Thomas P. Healy
The October resignation of Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corporation (MFCDC) executive director Leigh Riley Evans is just one of a series of setbacks that has beset Central @ 29, the long-anticipated redevelopment at Midtown’s southern edge.
According to a statement issued by MFCDC board chair Paula Means, Evans will continue managing the project until the end of November.
In an interview prior to her resignation, Evans said all 48 multifamily housing units in the project’s first phase will be offered to households that meet U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) income thresholds for assistance. “The first component of the master plan is 100 percent affordable—up to 80 percent AMI” (area median income), she said.
The planned four-story, 47-foot-tall structure received approval from the Metropolitan Board of Zoning Appeals Division Three at its Sept. 17 meeting. [PDF] A variance was required since the height exceeded the Consolidated Zoning and Subdivision Ordinance’s 35-foot maximum. Additional variances were necessary for reduced transitional yards (the space between structures), encroachments of clear sight triangle (setbacks to insure pedestrian safety), and 11 fewer parking spaces than the 36 stipulated by ordinance.
Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD) current planning staff supported the variances based on the site’s location within the “District Center” typology of the Red Line Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Plan. The staff report noted: “TOD investments here should leverage significantly higher residential and employment densities, demonstration projects, and urban living amenities and workforce housing.” The site’s half-mile proximity to the Red Line also contributed to DMD staff’s support for reduced on-site parking.
For years, MFCDC has used Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and other funds to assemble multiple parcels in the 2900 and 3000 blocks of Central Avenue. The current four-phase redevelopment proposal [PDF] is slated to include:
- Affordable multifamily housing (48 units)
- Mixed-use with market rate multifamily housing (50‐60 units)
- Single-family residences (40 units)
- Commercial/retail food hub (40,000 sq. ft.)
Total investment for all phases ranges between $50 million and $60 million. “All of it is so fluid that until we get to actual bids and construction documents, it’s all an estimate,” Evans said.
Working closely with the City’s economic development team, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and other partners, MFCDC has assembled a project team that includes firms with local, regional, and national experience in building transformative community redevelopments. “We are exceeding City requirements for minority- and women-owned business enterprises, and our collective vision is to see that that continues to be highlighted,” Evans said.
She added that the partners are ready to get started on the first phase so that they can begin moving forward on the other three. “We want to build momentum for each phase so that having one phase under way will leverage additional support for the other phases.”
Redevelopment of an area that hasn’t seen commercial investment for nearly five decades requires patience and perseverance. It takes a long time to assemble properties, work out the financing, and build consensus with neighborhood stakeholders.
In 2012, a series of public planning sessions resulted in a Quality of Life (QoL) Plan [PDF] for the Mid-North area that is 3 square miles in size, includes six neighborhoods north of Downtown Indianapolis as well as the Central @ 29 parcels. A Commercial Node Study of the QoL plan [PDF] identified a number of potential nodes for commercial development including 30th and Central, which was one of the top five. The QoL plan further established a work plan that prioritized development sites in order to “increase population density, including mixed-use opportunities; capitalize on student, employee, visitor populations; encourage transformation of infrastructure and street patterns from those that prioritize commuter traffic to those that promote neighborhood connectivity and walkability; and utilize multi-modal transportation options.”
The plan defined commercial nodes as “areas that focus on commerce or business, which could include office users, shopping destinations, or both.” A variety of activities cluster around nodes, making them dynamic centers of community life. The plan describes the area around 30th and Central as the epicenter of several neighborhoods and one of the district’s largest hubs of commercial activity in the mid-20th century.
The plan observed that after years of population decline and disinvestment, “this intersection needs an extensive amount of investment and planning to re-capture even a portion of its former glory and should not be considered an opportunity for a node in the short-term.”
The prognosis proved prescient as a 2015 effort to build an affordable housing project at 29th and Central stalled. In October 2015, Midtown Economic Council, the Indianapolis Economic Development Commission, and the Hogsett administration supported issuing a $12 million bond for a proposed 114-unit multifamily housing structure.
Established in 2013, the Midtown TIF was brand new and had not accumulated a fund balance. So the Hogsett team insisted that the developer assume responsibility for the bond. Deputy mayor for community development Jeff Bennett recalled: “We approved a developer-backed bond for the project early in the administration. It was the first one we ever did.” He said the concept was new to Indianapolis. “We had to explain to the commissioners what this was,” he said. A developer-backed bond places the obligation to service bond debt on the developer rather than on the City in the event that the incremental property tax generated by the project is insufficient to cover costs. Developer-backed bonds are now the Hogsett administration’s default position for such subsidies and one reason the City’s bond rating is strong. “We are committed to strengthening our local economy and investing in our neighborhoods, while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Mayor Hogsett said in a statement.
In its 2016 Annual Report, MFCDC reported that funding had been secured for Central @ 29. “The development will be funded with City of Indianapolis-issued TIF and Multifamily Bonds, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, LISC pre-development funds as well as HOME and CDBG.”
Even though the TIF bond was authorized, the project stalled. “It’s hard to build what was being proposed because what was being proposed was sorely needed,” Bennett said. The original proposal was for 2-and 3-bedroom affordable units for tenants earning 60% AMI. An innovation was the inclusion of 10% of the units for “grandfamilies” to accommodate mature adults raising their grandkids. “That is an absolute gap in the system but it’s really expensive to build a 3-bedroom apartment that is a tax credit unit. You have a difficult time finding sources of subsidy to fill that gap,” Bennett noted.
The gap widened to the point where in September 2016, the City-County Council approved an amended TIF request that increased the amount of the bond to $17 million. [PDF] However, the resolution expired on March 31, 2017, without any bonds issued.
Undeterred, MFCDC regrouped and issued a request for developer and partnership proposal in May 2018. [PDF] During the delay, the success of MFCDC’s revitalization efforts meant that some parcels slated for development were no longer in highly distressed Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) Qualified Census Tracts (QCT) and therefore ineligible for those subsidies.
Another challenge was described in the request: “A $900,000 note exists on these two blocks; however, depending on the proposed end use and level of community benefit achieved, the position of this debt changes between hard, immediately due, subordinate, or largely soft (i.e., soft only in return for strict adherence to the community benefits required for each parcel). If an entirely market rate housing development is proposed, for example, the note must be fully satisfied.”
Ultimately, the four-phase proposal was selected but since it differed from the original project, documentation was submitted to HUD in July 2018 for review. The federal agency needed to determine if the updated project met its funding guideline. Thanks in part to a federal government shutdown, HUD’s approval process took longer than anticipated. So when the OK arrived this summer, MFCDC sought the necessary variances.
It was a busy summer. In July, the City of Indianapolis awarded the project $480,000 in Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME) funds, as well as 13 project-based vouchers that subsidize rental housing in private developments for low-income households. Several other grant applications were submitted and decisions are pending.
Meanwhile, other elements of the QoL plan have been completed, including the restoration of the Central Avenue bridge and reverting this key street back to two-way traffic. Citizens Energy Group also completed elements of its DigIndy infrastructure project along 28th Street.
ADDITIONAL COVERAGE: Utility Work Brings Long-Term Improvements to Mapleton-Fall Creek
The saga continues, and the community remains optimistic about how far this project has come. But there’s a long way to go before the first family can move in by August 2021.