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The Battle for Broad Ripple
You may need a drink: Change is coming to the city’s most popular neighborhood.
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.”
In the chorus of opponents to the proposed Broad Ripple complex, perhaps no voice has been louder than that of Rudy Nehrling, owner of Good Earth Natural Food Company on Guilford Avenue. A health-food store, residing like so many businesses in what was once a house, Good Earth opened in 1971, and its cramped aisles are pretty much the only place where you can find vegan jerky, Earth Mama All Purpose Cleaner, and a very comprehensive collection of Birkenstocks under one roof.
Nehrling is less than thrilled about a Whole Foods opening within spitting distance of his establishment, but he says it isn’t because he fears competition. Over the years, he has withstood the arrival of a natural-food store backed by a national chain, the Whole Foods up in Nora, and the Fresh Market in the old Atlas location at 54th and College. What really grinds his fair-trade coffee beans is that the project is so out-of-character with anything else in the village, and that TIF money sweetened the deal. Plus, the thing is “huge.”
“If this was a Big Lots or a Walmart, we’d be just as opposed,” Nehrling says. “We are against the corporatization of Broad Ripple Village.”
When he says “we,” he means the loosely organized group of longtime residents who have fought the project in the press and on the streets. On a mid-August Friday, Broad Ripple residents Catherine Swanson and John Burnett stood on College Avenue, in front of the proposed development site, waving placards along with about 50 other project opponents. The crowd ranged from college kids to professionals in business suits, all carrying signs saying things like “Stand up to profiteering” and “Not good for Broad Ripple.”
Swanson came out because she frets about the additional traffic generated by the complex. Her fears are far from academic—she’s already been run over once trying to cross a village street. “Two years later, I’m still rehabbing,” she says. “I think this proposal will only increase traffic.”
Burnett’s issues with the project are equally pragmatic. He and his wife, Jude, live in an apartment that will enjoy a close-up view of the new structure’s parking-garage wall. The building will replace an abandoned Shell station on College Avenue, but also apartments next to the canal that bear a strong resemblance to Burnett’s own, where he and his wife have lived for 12 years, paying a modest $470 a month for the privilege. They can’t help but wonder: “How long before our place gets the wrecking ball, too?”
“I’m not against development, but make it village-sized,” he says. “If they get in, all these older apartments are out. The developers are pushing to get the zoning in this area changed from three stories to five. If they open that door, it’s a floodgate.”
Old-line retailers are also jittery. Though most of the small-time operators long ago abandoned Broad Ripple Avenue, they can still be found in the neighborhood’s northern reaches—a house-filled, formerly residential area that now hosts far more shops and businesses than families. The fear is that this first big project will open the way for more development—and more big retailers, who are pretty much the only ones who can afford the exorbitant rents the new spaces will charge. For instance, square-foot prices for the clutch of retail outlets inside the new College and Broad Ripple Avenue parking garage are reportedly north of $30 per square foot. That’s Clay Terrace money. “If you’re an independent retailer or restaurateur, they like to be at $20 a square foot or a little below,” says Michael Cranfill, a senior associate with Sitehawk Real Estate.
But Broad Ripple’s problem, as he sees it, is stagnation. There are lots of bars catering to the evening crowd, but not much else. The trendier new restaurants opt for SoBro or Mass Ave. He hopes new projects will turn that around—maybe bring back more of the affluent 35-and-up demographic that has moved elsewhere. Nabbing a Whole Foods, he thinks, is a first step.
“It helps make Broad Ripple more of a legitimate trade area, because now you’ve got that daytime shopper coming back in,” Cranfill says. “It helps to take away some of the stigma that Broad Ripple is becoming nothing but a collection of sports bars. And I think it will actually bring in other high-end retailer/restaurant concepts that aren’t necessarily just targeting college kids.”
Not surprisingly, any new development is probably going to charge toward the high end of Cranfill’s $20 to $30 range, which means you’ll probably see more national chains. For instance, the new parking garage includes more than a half-dozen retail slots, only two of which have so far been filled. Both are franchise operations: Marco’s Pizza and Firehouse Subs. The owner wants top dollar, and even the big boys seem loath to fork it over. Given the cost, this space will probably never host an independently owned local eatery or an “out there” retail concept.
“The last thing anyone wants is to be Carmel,” says BRVA executive director Brooke Klejnot. “We don’t want to be Carmel. Carmel wants to be us.”
“If you allow this area to be rezoned, then there’s a precedent for these huge, out-of-state retailers to come in and gobble up our real estate,” says Good Earth’s Nehrling. “You let in more corporate chains, and we’ve turned into Castleton.”
Brooke Klejnot, executive director of the BRVA, has heard that “Broad Ripple will turn into Castleton/Carmel/Fishers” line ad nauseam. It still drives her up the wall. “The last thing anyone wants is to be Carmel,” she says. “We don’t want to be Carmel. Carmel wants to be us.”
But as for the predictions that multistory structures like the one on College could proliferate there, Klejnot says it could happen. “The Broad Ripple village plan does specify that there are going to be areas, and College Avenue is one of them, where development is recommended to go five stories,” she says. “The Shell site development may be jarring to people who are not familiar with the Envision Broad Ripple process and the Broad Ripple village plan.”
She’s quick to point out that while bigger buildings are welcome in some high-traffic zones, most of the rest of the village (barring a variance) only allows smaller designs. So there’s no fox-in-the-henhouse scenario (barring a variance) in which investors eat up a bunch of tiny lots back in Small Business Land and build a gigantic project in their place. According to her, anyone contemplating such a plan would run into a snarl of legal entanglements and regulations. The BRVA’s long-frustrated attempts to develop more office space seem to support that.
Klejnot works on the first floor of what, for Broad Ripple, is a very unique piece of real estate—a relatively large, dedicated office building. It serves as a de facto incubator, housing startups such as EYE Can See (products for people with low or no vision), Fathom Voice (cloud-based business-communications systems), and the corporate headquarters of the rapidly franchising HotBox Pizza. But according to Klejnot, as soon as startups go on a hiring binge, they’re forced to exit the neighborhood. There’s simply no place for a large office. Corporate software company Tinderbox, now on Monument Circle, was the most recent high-profile loss.
“As the executive to the BRVA, I want them to stay,” Klejnot says. “I don’t want them to be the next tech company that moves downtown because we can’t accommodate them.”
Trouble is, there’s no place to plant a standard-issue office building without securing dozens of small land parcels. Also, despite the new levee, some of Broad Ripple remains technically vulnerable to flooding, creating a hornet’s nest of expensive regulatory issues. Recently, two old buildings were renovated on Westfield Boulevard, but the BRVA had to spend a lot of time shepherding them through the blizzard of paperwork that arose from their flood-zone location. The project was touch-and-go all the way because expensive regulatory requirements (had they been demanded) could potentially have priced the remodel into extinction. “It could have been a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Klejnot says. “If things hadn’t fallen in their favor, we wouldn’t be looking at that development.”
All of this is happening at a time when the city’s other cultural districts, such as Fountain Square and Mass Ave, seem to add amenities overnight with close-to-zero public opposition. For instance, down at Mass Ave they’re putting up a $43 million complex with 235 apartments, 40,000 square feet of first-floor retail space, and a roughly 400-space parking facility. Oh, and a three-story-tall, Times Square–style LED screen that wraps around the exterior. Snarky comments about the plan aside, there hasn’t been a single protester in sight.
This sort of competition would be a big deal by itself, but for Klejnot, it’s just one issue of many. For instance, the neighborhood has gotten a bad reputation lately for crime. The truth, she asserts, is that most of the bad stuff happens in the middle of the night. “In looking at the data, your opportunity for incident is 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night,” she says.
Police records show that she’s not blowing smoke. A look at six months’ worth of crime statistics proves that if you want to get robbed or assaulted, you should report to Broad Ripple on a weekend night around the time that the bars close. And even the crime the neighborhood did have during that period tended to be petty. Perhaps most telling, Broad Ripple has contributed exactly zero murders to the city’s recent spate of homicides. In fact, there hasn’t been one in the area since Oct. 30, 2007. Those stats would make Mayberry proud.
“Everyone feels ownership of Broad Ripple. It’s strange to us, but understandable. I mean, who doesn’t love the place? Everyone has a right to care about it.”
“But once you get the reputation, however inaccurate, it’s hard to shake,” Klejnot says. “It’s something we’ve been struggling against, and it has created an economic impact for our businesses.”
Another tough aspect of her job is dealing with the opposition to Envision. She won’t talk badly about anyone (Nehrling at Good Earth is a BRVA member, as are most of the many local businesses that signed a petition opposing the College Avenue plan), and she thinks that this is the nature of the beast. Name pretty much any Broad Ripple project, from the parking garage to an ambitious idea to turn the gravel path next to the Central Canal into an art-themed biking boulevard, and you’ll find someone passionately railing against it.
Blame it, Klejnot says, on the village’s unique character. Even tourists seem peculiarly invested in the area. “Everyone feels ownership of Broad Ripple,” she says. “It’s strange to us, but understandable. I mean, who doesn’t love the place? Everyone has a right to care about it.”
Even the biggest proponents of the status quo agree that something must be done about the neighborhood’s sagging infrastructure. No one who has beheld the garish ugliness of the telephone poles jutting up along Broad Ripple Avenue or driven down Cornell Avenue, which is less a road than a series of overlapping, scab-like pothole patches, can argue that. Those fixes are allegedly going to happen. There’s even a scheme for a comprehensive Central Canal beautification that could create a restaurant-and-shop–lined promenade down both sides of the waterway.
So good things are coming. But some worry that while the brick-and-mortar projects could bring more people, the newcomers just won’t feel the same love for the area that the current residents do. Whitney Kinkel, acting president of a neighborhood association called the Kesslerwood Civic League, is definitely an old-school Broad Ripple booster. Until recently, most of her neighbors were of the same ilk, having lived in the area for decades. But these days, she sees fewer lifers and more “transients”—folks who’ll move along when they get a new job or marry or have a kid. “There are fewer families, fewer long-term residents, a lot more turnover,” she says. “You don’t get the commitment to community we used to have.”
Diminished local services don’t help matters. A couple of decades ago, there was a grade school in the middle of the village. Now it’s condos. The library stood nearby. Now it’s at Glendale Mall, effectively cut off from foot traffic. The village fire station was downgraded to an EMT post. The tiny post office seems a likely candidate for closure.
Could the Village of Tomorrow turn into a sterile Corporate Zone filled with chain stores, apartment-dwellers, bars, and little else? In other words, despite the BRVA’s protests to the contrary, could the neighborhood become a shopping mall? The real answer is that nobody can say just now. The Envision transformation has only begun. And even though there is a lot of money backing the scheme, it’s not going quite according to plan. The College Avenue development, for instance, has been reshaped and repeatedly delayed by neighborhood opposition. And the American Legion did a number on it, too. Today, the project is roughly triangle-shaped. But originally it was more rectangular, and slated to run from the Shell station to 65th Street. That would have required the purchase of a two-acre parcel owned by American Legion Post #3, which resides in an old, converted streetcar shed at the property’s western edge. The mayor himself visited the post to get them to sell, but the Legion said no.
Interestingly, one of the land’s tenants welcomes the project with an open mind. The Legion has leased the eastern corner of its property to a produce stand called Johnny’s Market since, well, pretty much forever. Johnny Deuser has sold flowers, produce, pumpkins, and Christmas trees there for 38 years and doesn’t plan to stop. And even though next summer he’ll likely have a vast, noisy construction site for a neighbor (and a gigantic grocery store after that), he’s not concerned. He thinks there’s a lot to be said for something nice and new and big. It couldn’t possibly be worse than his current neighbor—the abandoned Shell station, home to graffiti, trash, the occasional vagrant, and enough broken glass to fill a Dumpster.
Khitlik, the old-timer running the watch shop, seems equally unfazed. After all, he’s already survived other challenges, from a burglar to the bar invasion. His repair business has fallen off, mostly because so many people “buy watches from Walmart for like, 10 bucks.” But folks looking for fresh batteries still keep his door swinging. And if he sticks with it, he’ll have a front-row seat for Broad Ripple’s latest transformation—a drama far more riveting than anything on his always-flickering TV.
Photo illustration by Gluekit, with photos by Tony Valainis; all other photos by Stephen Simonetto
This article appeared in the November 2013 issue.