The White River’s Watershed Moment

Big changes are just around the bend for our long-neglected waterway.

Indianapolis resides where it does because of a river. Not long after the state’s founders placed the Hoosier capital along that waterway, people began to ignore and befoul it. The White River became invisible (albeit easy to smell). Development along it? Recreation in it? Those ideas were once as hard to swallow as the few toxic fish prowling the water. Lately, though, the current has shifted. Maybe it started with the GM Stamping Plant site redevelopment plans. Or the Broad Ripple boardwalk concept. Or the Deep Rock Tunnel that’s about to make the river cleaner than it has been in decades. As Central Indiana finally awakens to the enormous asset flowing through its middle, we’re giving you a guided tour of its past, present, and future. Grab a paddle.

As Broad Ripple strives to reinvent itself after a decades-long bar binge, three visionaries in the area sketch out their concepts for the neighborhood’s future.

Proposed Broad Ripple Boardwalk Rendering

A Boardwalk
Brian Payne’s wife, Gail, came up with the idea of a boardwalk running from the Monon Trail to Broad Ripple Park along the river, and the Central Indiana Community Foundation president has been championing it ever since. The city got as far as designing the curved path on piers in 2015, but the money disappeared when Mayor Greg Ballard left office. Now Brian is trying to fold the concept into a larger $100 million plan he and Gail have for building bike paths throughout the city.

$3 million (of the larger plan).

Besides raising $100 million? Getting neighborhoods citywide to buy into it.

A Music Festival

A Music Festival
Dan Ripley founded Broad Ripple Park’s WARMfest in 2013. And while the music died after just two years, the idea evolved into the ROC & ROW Festival there. Right now, it’s a small concert lineup. But Ripley hasn’t given up on building something larger like Louisville’s three-day Forecastle Festival on the Ohio River. He envisions water-skiing shows and fireworks, with acts like Michael Franti playing in the park.

$1 million per festival.

Infrastructure. According to Ripley, Broad Ripple Park needs an amphitheater and more shelters to realize its potential.

A walk-able Broad Ripple Avenue

A Walkable Broad Ripple Avenue
Colleen Fanning ran for city council with the goal of revitalizing Broad Ripple Avenue. The traffic-choked thoroughfare of bars has been bad for the area’s brand, and it hasn’t seen major infrastructure improvements in years. Fanning advocates a Georgia Street–like boulevard with wider sidewalks and decorative lighting, allowing for concerts and farmer’s markets.

$4 million.

Construction will begin soon on a nearby Red Line station, and a massive drainage project is overdue. Coordinating those with tearing up the streets for this could be tough.

Although thoroughly developed, the downtown stretch of the White River has never been a place to play in—something a new master plan intends to fix.

For most of the last 120 years, the Mile Square section of the White River was good for exactly one thing: making stuff. From the mid-1800s to the 1970s, Acme Evans Flour Mill, Kingan & Co. meats, and other industrial plants dominated the riverfront. But attempts to transport goods on the water failed as boats ran aground on sandbars.

In 1979, the city made the visionary decision to create White River State Park in an attempt to attract more visitors. Today, the river cuts through the park’s 250 acres, which include many of downtown’s most popular attractions: the Indianapolis Zoo (1200 W. Washington St., 317-630-2001), Indiana State Museum (650 W. Washington St., 317-232-1637), and Victory Field (501 W. Maryland St., 317-269-3545). Historically, access to the river from those places was scarce. But that finally appears to be changing.

Austin, Texas could serve as a model for downtown riverway development

In spring, Visit Indy and other civic groups announced a White River master plan that consultants will help develop in the coming months. One goal of the plan will be to more meaningfully connect the river with nearby attractions. No details have been announced yet, but the downtown sandy beach originally proposed in 2015 is not off the table. The new Indiana Urban Wilderness Trail, a dirt path originating at IUPUI’s Michael A. Carroll Stadium, already is increasing pedestrian access to the river. Look for nesting bald eagles as well as beaver, fox, mink, and osprey.

Across the waterway from the university, the Great Places 2020 initiative is spiffing up River West, a new name for an area that includes Haughville, Stringtown, and Hawthorne. In addition to rehabbing vacant homes near the water, organizers hope to change Michigan and New York streets to two-way roads for easier access.

On the business front, 16 Tech recently hired its first president, a sign that the long-planned tech district along Indiana Avenue may finally happen. The 60-acre property will host research facilities and advanced manufacturing, among other things. Soon, the tradition of making things along the White River could return. Let’s hope the companies setting up shop there prove to be better stewards of the water.

In one of the most ambitious projects in the city’s history, a developer hopes to create a $550 million river district southwest of downtown.

Looking at the industrial wasteland that was once the GM Stamping Plant, you could be forgiven for initially missing its potential. Homeless people camp in tents not far from the site. Chemicals from decades of manufacturing pollute the soil. Getting to the parcel currently requires some clever navigating because so few streets connect it to downtown. But then you realize you’re standing on 100 riverfront acres about three blocks from Lucas Oil Stadium.

GM Stamping Plant Rendering

This spring, Ambrose Property Group proposed a $550 million complex of offices, apartments, retail stores, and a hotel there. For Ambrose, which developed Circle Tower and Landmark Center, it’s a moonshot of a project. Although the company won’t talk about the details until the deal closes, initial reports described 2.7 million square feet of new construction. For Indy, even more is on the line. A city rarely gets a chance to create a new downtown neighborhood that size from scratch. And on land sitting right along the White River? It’s a once-in-a-century opportunity.

Not to pour water on the excitement, but this site has produced enough failed plans (justice center, concert venue) to invite a little skepticism. Even if the deal closes this year and construction begins in 2018 as reports have suggested, massive infrastructure improvements would have to be made. South Street would require a bridge across the river. The Cultural Trail probably would extend across, too. An epic cleanup of toxins hiding under the factory parking lot would ensue. But the GM Stamping Plant redevelopment idea has done more to shift public attention to the White River than perhaps anything else.