Sunday, June 10th, 2007
Like most cities across the nation, Indianapolis has seen a mini-flurry of downtown condo construction, with some few thousand units having been built or being under construction. Today I review two of these, 757 Mass Ave. and the Villagio.
Project Size and Composition
Both of these projects are primarily residential, but include a retail component, with 757 Mass Ave. having 23 condominium units with underground parking in a 4-5 story structure and the Villagio having 64 units in a 9 story structure with an attached parking garage.
Both are located along one of the original diagonal streets from Alexander Ralston’s plan of Indianapolis. 757 Mass Ave.’s address shows its home in the northeast quadrant of downtown at the Corner of Mass Ave and College Ave., just outside the Mile Square. The Villagio is located on Virgina Ave. and East St., again just outside the Mile Square in the southeast quadrant.
Both are on the edges of historic districts. 757 Mass Ave. is just inside the Chatham Arch historic district and the Villagio is just outside the Fletcher Place historic district. As we will see, this played a crucial role in the development of these structures.
757 Mass Ave’s location is in one of the more premier and established downtown districts. Prior to this building, it housed a structure with the Abbey Coffeehouse. Mass Ave is probably the premier commercial corridor downtown, home to many cultural destinations, stores, and restaurants. The Villagio exists in what is presently a bit of a no-man’s land between the core of downtown and Fountain Square. Fletcher Place is predominantly residential, with the only real attraction in the area being the Dunaway’s restaurant. The implication of this is that the land value of the757 Mass Ave. lot was probably much higher than that of the Villagio lot. Again, I believe this has a big affect on the design.
Both buildings are on triangular lots, but of a critically different orientation. 757 Mass Ave’s corner is oriented facing away from downtown. The historic district in the area also makes it unlikely that any tall buildings will be built to obstruct the view of downtown from the roof. The Villagio’s corner is oriented towards downtown, with what is currently one of the best views of the city. That is a key asset of the lot. Again, this has implications.
757 Mass Ave.
Here is a picture of 757 Mass Ave. as seen from Mass Ave. With this and all images in my blog, you can click the image for a full sized view.
As you can see, this is a typical urban style brick building with limestone trim featuring ground level storefronts and residential units on upper floors. You’ll notice immediately a couple of things. First is that this building is taller than those surrounding it. The other is that the elevation along Mass Ave is shorter than that along the other street (which is College Ave).
As for the scaling, I think this shows that downtown Indianapolis, at least this area, is starting to come to life and there is a growing desire to put these prime blocks to better use through densification. The land along Mass Ave is too valuable to put up a lot of low-rise buildings these days. However, because it is in a historic district, the neighborhood association will not allow heights that are dramatically out of scale. Hence the height limit on Mass Ave. proper, with a higher stop stepped back on other streets or in the interior of the structure. This is also very dramatically going to be the case with the forthcoming 3 Mass building, which will be up to 10 stories with a stepbacked upper floors.
Here’s a closer view of the Mass Ave. frontage.
You can see the nice floor to ceiling glass storefronts on the ground level. I also think leaving the sidewalk open under the building, while still addressing the intersection with a rounded corner was a very nice touch. This will give an expanded pedestrian way, a refuge from the rain, and make it easy to get around from Mass to College without shearing off the entire building. Again, I like the strong, triangular corner that is softened just enough with the rounded edging. I also like the horizontal symmetry of the building, whose differing center section with an almost keystone like subtle arch at the top gives the building a kind of classical elegance without excessive reliance on decoration.
The principal downside here is that the upper floors are pretty much a blank vertical wall. This doesn’t show up too bad right now because there are a lot of empty lots and shorter buildings around, but if there were too many of these in a row, you’d quickly see the concrete canyon effect. It would have been better to make the upper floors “permeable” with balconies recessed into the structure, which would have also enabled the residents to be participants in the street life, of which Mass Ave is still in significant need. Here’s my attempt at a photo to illustrate what I’m talking about:
Where you really see this building stand out is when you consider it from the opposite angle. Here’s a shot showing the rear of the building from College Ave.
Why is this so good? Most importantly, you can see that the building is 100% brick on all sides and also has some degree of architectural interest, including street level interest, on all sides. All too often in Indianapolis buildings are designed to look good when seen from one side or if seen from a certain angle. But they often are terrible from the other sides. Heck, this isn’t limited to Indianapolis. Chicago, for example, is famous for its zillions of concrete block condo buildings with only a brick facade. This, on the other hand, is a true 360 degree building.
Oh, can you can see that they do have recessed decks on the rear of the building. Imagine that as a blank brick wall and you’ll see the difference.
What’s more, this photo illustrates that 757 Mass Ave. has 100% enclosed parking under the building and on the ground floor. There are no surface lots. This is common in bigger cities but rare in Indianapolis. This allows for far more intense use of land, which should help bring more 24 hour street life to the area. What’s more, a parking lot is a vacant lot. It is just a barrier, a black hole in the urban fabric that makes it difficult for a pedestrian to stroll from one location to the next. Not only is there just plain nothing there, increasing the distance while adding nothing, parking lots aren’t that inviting anyway.
Storefronts were clearly mandated on Mass Ave, but it would have been easy to just leave the College Ave. street level facade as a blank wall. Indeed, all too many other developments downtown have done just this. But 757 Mass Ave. does not. Instead, it wraps around the storefront windows part of the way down College. And for the portion of the building that is enclosed parking, they put in oversized, decorative ventilation covers. Here’s a picture.
I’m not going to say this is totally ideal, but it is light years beyond what has been typical for Indianapolis.
By the way, the Indy Cultural Trail will run directly next to this building along College Ave.
On the whole, this is architecturally perhaps the most successful infill structure in downtown Indianapolis in recent years. I think it represents a template for the type of building elements the city should be expecting developers to incorporate. The company that erected it, Beilouny, is also developing a property around the corner that appears to have many similar good qualities.
When you look at the prices in the building, however, you start to see the challenge. The typical apartment in 757 Mass Ave. is $600-$800,000. This is far, far above what people are used to paying in Indianapolis. Indeed, the penthouse units sold for well over $1 million. These are very spacious apartments with nice finishes, but that’s a price point that is not likely to attract a lot of Indy buyers. One of the penthouse owners in this building is Michael Andretti, the Indy race car driver, and I believe that many if not most of the buyers fit into the same category, that is, people who are buying these as pied à terres, not as primary residences. In fact, I speculate this is true of a lot of downtown condos in general, which, if they are not priced out of the affordability range of young professionals in Indianapolis, are priced higher than what they are willing to pay. Condos that sit empty much of the time don’t do nearly as much for adding life to a neigborhood as primary residences do.
To encourage full time occupants may require bringing the price down, but that also could mean sacrificing on a lot of the qualities that make the building itself nice, such as 360 degree brick. There is certainly a trade off that has to be made between architectural quality and affordability. The challenge for Indianapolis developers and architects is how to find a good balance where quality can be brough to the market at an affordable price while at the same time building something that is in a true Indianapolis vernacular. That’s not an easy task, but it is the one that must be accomplished.
This review will continue in a subsequent posting, when I take a more in depth look at the Villagio.