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The best way to judge how much Broad Ripple has transformed in the last few decades is to visit a spot where it hasn’t: Sasha’s Jewelry & Watch Repair Service, a village fixture since 1978. Glass display cases overflow with tangled mounds of watches, an old TV blathers on a high shelf, and a bullet hole decorates the front door’s metal frame. Funny story about that. Back in ’83, a guy tried to run off with a ring, so Sasha (a Ukraine native whose real name is Tsalya Khitlik) pulled out his Colt .45 pistol and took a shot at him. The slug narrowly missed the perp and plowed into the doorframe, where it serves as a warning to anyone else considering a five-finger discount.
The 176-year-old neighborhood with White River frontage, a picturesque canal, and old homes attracted a lot of quirky retailers like Sasha’s when its higher-end stores decamped to the new Glendale Mall a few decades ago. And Khitlik’s jewelry cases, TV, and bullet hole look exactly the same as they did then. But the rest of Broad Ripple has changed almost beyond recognition. Sasha’s neighbors once included Ted’s Barber Shop and a mom-and-pop grocery. Today, only a handful of traditional retailers remain, most wedged between watering holes such as Wild Beaver Saloon, Average Joe’s, and Kilroy’s. “People come visiting like tourists,” Khitlik says of the evening crowd. “Then they go home.”
Of course, Broad Ripple has a long history of radical change. When founded in 1837, the village served as a bucolic country vacation spot for visitors from faraway Indianapolis. Then, when the city encroached, the area morphed into a daytime playground, complete with a deluxe amusement park. In the 1950s, it was a white-bread community full of mainstream shops. When most of the top-drawer retail moved out in the ’60s, Broad Ripple welcomed small-scale hippie outfits peddling everything from candles to rolling papers, earning the neighborhood its counterculture reputation. The last makeover commenced in 1977, when the Vogue Theater, a former movie palace reduced to screening porn, became a music venue. As the area’s new “nightlife” vibe caught on, more drinking establishments opened. Gradually, Broad Ripple filled up with bars, turning it into today’s twentysomething nocturnal playground. But as Broad Ripple Village Association president Jay Wetzel asserts, that trend has run its course.
“We’ve probably reached the tipping point,” says the 31-year-old resident, who bikes to his day job as general manager of Union Jack Pub. “Another club, another bar would probably push something else out, or not survive itself.”
Wetzel says Broad Ripple is really three places—a late-night party zone, an evening dining spot, and a daytime shopping/eating/walking district. The evening dining and party-zone parts are thriving. The daytime stuff isn’t. Rising rents (which for Sasha’s surged from $200 to $1,500 a month in recent years) are driving out small shops, and there just aren’t enough people living in the area, which means not enough butts in chairs at Wetzel’s establishment. “It’s a tough sell sometimes,” he says. “You’d love to see better lunch crowds and shoppers. It boils down to the fact that Broad Ripple could really use another 2,000 or 3,000 dedicated residents.”
To address that problem, he wants the village to change yet again. Along with the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development, Wetzel and other members of the BRVA published a 95-page plan called Envision Broad Ripple in 2012 that is quickly picking up steam—and catching Broad Ripple traditionalists by surprise.
Proponents think the proposal will bolster the area’s daytime businesses, increase population, and kick off an unprecedented round of new construction. Opponents fear that instead of saving Broad Ripple, the plan could pave over everything that makes the spot unique. The first step is scheduled to break ground next year: a massive—at least by Broad Ripple standards—retail-and-apartment complex just one block north of the intersection of College and Broad Ripple avenues. And as goes that controversial project, so goes the entirety of the city’s most popular neighborhood.
Perhaps the only things outnumbering the bars in Broad Ripple in recent years have been the elaborate schemes to “save” it. Past studies commissioned to that end include the Broad Ripple Village Neighborhood Plan (1986); its much-anticipated sequel, Broad Ripple Village Plan Update (1997); and the action-packed Broad Ripple Village District Working Plan (2003). All of which were recently superseded by Envision Broad Ripple. Like the previous efforts, Envision is full of appendices and maps and grand proposals. Unlike its predecessors, it looks like it’s actually happening.
A couple of game-changing events accelerated the latest metamorphosis. The neighborhood has always faced development-hampering flood problems, but a recently completed levee removed that danger from portions of the village north of the canal. More importantly, Broad Ripple is now part of a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, which uses expected growth in property-tax revenue to grease the wheels for redevelopment. The area, called the North Midtown Allocation District, includes 17 neighborhoods, several of which, such as 34th Street and Central Avenue, have a crying need for improvements.
The idea was to net funds from more-prosperous areas to help bolster the less-prosperous ones. Not surprisingly, however, developers hoping to use TIF funds to defray building costs targeted economically vibrant Broad Ripple first. Suddenly, saving the village from floods isn’t the issue anymore. It’s how to regulate a potential deluge of construction.
Envision Broad Ripple meetings began in 2008, with the neighborhood represented by the BRVA. The group visited similar neighborhoods in Bloomington and Columbus, Ohio; tinkered with models of the village made from Lego blocks; and held 27 public meetings. The report the group generated offers nine broad recommendations, including standard pap such as improving infrastructure and adding trees. But the last two, “seek ways to develop key projects” and “increase density,” are the biggies. Translated from developer-ese: Add more housing and office space.
The plan was initially viewed as an academic exercise by most locals—provided they knew about Envision Broad Ripple at all. But in this case, driven by the floodplain work and TIF money, the proposal seemed to turn into brick-and-mortar projects almost immediately. Before the ink dried on the final report, construction began on a parking garage—an idea that had been tossed around since the ’80s and, coincidentally, a project in line with Envision recommendations.
The second salvo is a proposed $25 million apartment/retail complex fronting both College Avenue and the Central Canal. The project would be considered medium-sized anywhere else, but in cozy Broad Ripple, its 75-foot height and two-acre footprint make it a colossus. And the inclusion of a Whole Foods grocery store will plant a big-box retailer in a community famous for independent shops.
The design triggered energetic protests from residents who fear (among a great many other things) that the idea will price local shops out of the market, snarl traffic, and open the door for other massive structures. All of which frustrates the project’s manager, Jamie Browning, vice president of real-estate development for local Browning Investments. The worst part, according to him, is that he was asked to do this. He says that the city, impressed by his company’s losing proposal for the nearby parking garage, invited it to pitch a mixed-use concept for the area. Which it did, sticking to zoning rules in the Envision study. “We assumed if we complied with the Envision Broad Ripple project,” Browning says, “that we were doing what the stakeholders wanted us to do.”
Browning is one of those stakeholders himself: He’s an investor in several Broad Ripple businesses, including Usual Suspects and Village Cigar. He states categorically that something has to be done to boost the area. “We’ve seen a migration of people out of Broad Ripple,” he says. “I know that from my business interests there. It’s indisputable. We think that more development in the area—and we’re talking about a $28 million investment in the community—is better than not.”
A good number of locals would disagree. So many, in fact, that their protests forced a number of revisions to Browning’s original plan. The company knocked 10 feet off of the building’s height (reducing it to a still-tall-for-these-parts 75) and added 15 more apartments in place of retail space, all of which hiked the pricetag to around $25 million. But one of the biggest sticking points has been the Whole Foods. Browning finds it ironic that the national retailer, which many communities would beg for, created such controversy. And he’s quick to question the motives of the development’s detractors. “Clearly, their stated agenda is one thing, and their hidden agenda is another,” he says. “Their hidden agenda is that they don’t want competition."
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