by Connie Zeigler
Residents of Washington Park, a charming Meridian-Kessler neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places, have embarked on an ambitious project to have the area designated as a local historic district.
While that may seem redundant, a National Register listing is a purely honorary recognition, although the listing does afford property owners some protections from federally funded projects. Conversely, districts that are locally designated, in this case by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC), are regulated based on preservation plans that a majority of neighbors agree upon.
Imagine getting 70 of your 100 nearest neighbors to agree that if they want to build a garage on their property, they first have to ask a city commission and abide by that commission’s decision. Now you can also imagine both the general process and the difficulty in achieving the goal.
And yet the neighbors of Washington Park, organized by a coordinating committee, are in the middle of working toward a preservation plan that will make them a locally designated district. Working with the IHPC’s preservation planner, Christopher Myers, the seven resident members of the coordinating committee, led initially by Kim Kourany and now by Marvin Vollmer, have helped other residents of the neighborhood understand the process and navigate through Phase 1 of what Myers described as a three-phase process. Phase 1 involved surveying and informing neighbors of the process in order to achieve consensus to move forward in pursuit of a preservation plan. That plan could ultimately result in the IHPC having review and approval—or disapproval—of proposed changes to and new construction of all buildings in the district.
But before Kourany and other committee members began their work, Myers said, the Meridian-Kessler Neighborhood Association reached out to the IHPC for help preserving neighborhoods in its region. Myers said “development was changing the character of the one-and a-half story bungalows being converted to two-and a-half story houses.” MKNA, according to Myers, was “looking for tools for protecting character.” The IHPC suggested that the larger umbrella organization focus on a neighborhood that was recently listed on the National Register because in those areas “folks had recently recognized what makes the place significant.”
According to MKNA president Nick Colby, “We have always embraced change and the natural evolution of our neighborhood, but our focus is on managing that change to ensure we do not lose the character of the neighborhood.” Although Washington Park’s initiative is “autonomous from MKNA,” Colby said, he was involved in helping choose a consultant to start the process in Washington Park. And MKNA has put its money where its interests are, so far having contributed around $20,000 to the planning process, “though that amount is largely offset by donations and grants that we have secured,” according to Colby.
A month or two into the pursuit of local designation, the hired consultant, Emily Mack, a former staffperson at the IHPC, took a position as director of the Department of Metropolitan Development. She had to stop work on the plan, which was a blow to the neighborhood but might ultimately be a positive. Once the plan is completed, and if it is recommended by the IHPC, it will go to the Metropolitan Development Commission for final approval.
Myers said that it was “really beneficial to have a consultant as go-between” at the beginning of the process. “A lot of things went into setting up communications and the consultant helped them stay on point. They wouldn’t be where they are without that.” Now at Phase 2, the committee has just presented to the neighbors the “Guidelines for New Construction” that Myers drafted with a lot of community input. If the plan is adopted, these guidelines will help the IHPC know what the neighborhood has agreed is acceptable or not acceptable in building design. Kourany said they specifically started with new construction guidelines because they felt there “wouldn’t be a lot of push-back” from the neighbors, who have been informed and invited to participate in the process via meetings, conversations, emails, and even a video on the historic Washington Park website.
Once the new construction section is completed, Myers will begin work on the likely more controversial “renovation” section—Phase 3. This section aims to help neighbors keep what Kourany refers to as “the special sauce” that makes Washington Park distinctive and enhances the historic flavor of the neighborhood. Phase 3 will address items such as replacement windows, setbacks, additions, and materials.
Generally speaking, things have gone well in the process so far—“incredibly well,” as Myers put it, but added, “This process is always thorough and thoughtful.” To date, it has happened 17 times in Indianapolis. There are 12 “Historic Districts” and five slightly less-regulated “Conservation Districts” that have gone through similar processes. Kourany said Irvington Historic District’s preservation plan served as a loose guide for Washington Park’s, though Myers noted that “no one process looks like the others.”
There have been objections, of course, of the typical sort: People are afraid of losing control over their properties. At least one neighbor has concerns that the plan might function like the process followed by the Meridian Street Preservation Commission (MSPC), which has to grant prior approval of variances in a portion of Washington Park that also falls in the MSPC region. But Vollmer, the current coordinating committee chair, said “the IHPC plan we’re developing with Washington Park homeowners is much more flexible and user-friendly than the State Legislature–created MSPC process.” And, probably more important, the neighborhood has helped create the plan from the start.
When the Phase 3 renovation guidelines—planned for completion in February 2017—are ready, the full draft will be presented to the neighborhood for feedback. If the neighbors approve, then the plan goes to the IHPC. If the IHPC commissioners agree to recommend acceptance, then it’s off to a MDC hearing for official approval or denial.
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 December ’16/January ’17 issue of the magazine.