Monday, July 2nd, 2007

Project Reviews: 757 Mass Ave. and the Villagio in Indianapolis, Part Two

Here is the belated Part Two of my review. You can read Part One here, which provides an overview of these two projects, and details on 757 Mass Ave. This part covers the Villagio and provides some closing thoughts.

Without further ado, here is a picture of the Villagio under construction. As with all pictures in this blog, you can click the photo for a full sized version.

This is looking at the Virginia Ave. facade. As you can see, this is a nine story building and thus pretty unique for Indianapolis condo buildings, most of which are low rise. As you can see the building fronts Virigina Ave. and while the street level facade isn’t the greatest, and the brick only extends to the fourth floor, this view doesn’t look like a bad building at all.

Unfortunately, other angles show significant problems. If we back off a bit, we can examine them in more detail.

A large building like this requires a lot of parking. To the developer’s credit, they didn’t put it in a gigantic surface lot. However, in this case the cure is almost worse than the disease. There is a large parking garage along Virginia Ave. that looks bad, takes up probably as much surface area as the main building, and has no street level interest. This makes the Villagio, unlike 757 Mass Ave., kryponite to pedestrians and street life. Of course, there isn’t a lot around on this street, but that was no excuse. You have to start somewhere, and this building was the perfect opportunity, now squandered.

Also, the pastel stucco-like facade on the upper floors makes the building look like a cheap interstate exit hotel. Cheap being the operative word here, as it just makes the building look like the developer skimped on materials by only bricking the lower part of it.

This might superficially seem like a poster child in favor of historic districts. Clearly, had this building been in Chatham Arch, it never would have been allowed. On the downside, the IHPC would have doubtless slashed the number of units by 2/3, but the worst elements of the building would likely have been stripped out. In fact, directly across the street from this is the Fletcher Place historic district, which is almost 100% single family homes in line with the current historic district thinking.

I however believe that better zoning alone could deal with this. For example, the materials could have been disallowed. Also, storefronts or other pedestrian and streetscape friendly elements could be mandated for the ground floor. There is pretty much no reason to ever let and unadored parking garage be built. All of these would be consistent with the rule of law while providing high quality design guidelines. Indeed, Indianapolis just passed a new regional center urban design ordinance. I haven’t had the chance to really digest it, but what I’ve seen didn’t impress. What’s more, zoning is only as good as the enforcement. The city will approve – and even subsidize – almost anything any developer wants to put up. They hand out variances and TIF money like candy canes. Only in historic areas is there any teeth in design guidelines and zoning. With the normal process so bad, it is no wonder people turn to historic districts as the only way to keep bad things out of their neighborhood.

Another area where this differs from 757 Mass Ave is how it addresses its triangular lot. 757 Mass Ave. is built to the corner. This building is sheared off to have a wall facing the corner. Here is the front of the building.

Ordinarily I would ding the building for this. But in this case, the decision is justified. This lot has one of the best views of the skyline in the entire city. To build a triangle jutting out directly towards Monument Circle would have made it impossible to take advantage of this view. 757 Mass Ave. didn’t have this since its lot faced away from downtown. This lot location probably also explains the decision to build up. It maximizes the number of units with great skyline views.

What this results in is a triangular plot of land left at the corner of Viriginia Ave. and East St. This is currently a paved parking lot. I think it would make a great park location. If this were turned into a landscaped neighborhood park, I think there would be great. I’m not optimistic about that, however. There is supposed to be ground floor retail in this building, and I’m guessing that the developers will not be able to resist the urge to leave this lot as parking. Fortunately, currently there is a landscaped buffer along the street that mitigates the appearance of the asphalt to a great degree. Assuming this is kept, it won’t look awful.

What the picture above also shows is the strong Mediterranean design influence on this building. With a name like the Villagio, it seems like the developer is trying to conjure up visions of the seaside in Sicily. Unfortunately, Indianapolis is not on the ocean. This developer has done a lot of seaside development in places like Naples, Florida and they just adapted this straight from their playbook. The design and color scheme are completely out of place for Indianapolis. With the building so large as well, this creates a quite jarring effect. It is too bad that the developer showed so little respect for the local architectural context.

On the whole, I cannot rate this development as particularly successful. This is in contrast to the very solid 757 Mass Ave.

So why did the projects end up so differently? I think it goes back to the circumstances in which each was built. This lot cried out for mid-rise construction to take advantage of the skyline views. Despite the height, the building makes inefficient use of land, which is enabled by the low land values in this neighborhood compared to the NE Quad. Plus the fact that it is not in a historic district allowed the developers to do whatever they wanted. All of these factors were reversed in the case of 757 Mass Ave.

Another thing this highlights to me is that height often works to negative effect in places like Indianapolis. High rise construction works in Chicago and New York because those cities have extremely expensive land, forcing efficient use. They’ve got the zoning and development history in place to reduce the likelihood of street level monstrosities. And most importantly they are cities in which it is convenient to walk to almost anything you would need, and there is excellent public transit to facilitate getting around. This allows many buildings to be built with far less parking than in smaller cities which are auto depedent. In fact, purely commercial skyscrapers often have no parking on site. You could never get away with that in Indianapolis.

In an Indianapolis sized city, every development requires large amounts of parking. This is often in the form of low rise attached garages that ruin the surrounding streetscape and urban fabric. The resulting inefficient land use dramatially reduces density. I would be very keep to compare the units or square footage per surface area square foot for these two buildings. While the Villagio might be more dense, it is probably much less of a difference than you would think based on the height of the main structure alone. The parking lot and parking garage in the Villagio are pure wasted space, something that 757 Mass Ave. doesn’t have. If there is one thing I’d like to be able to convince people of, it is that height != density. What’s more, it isn’t clear to me that in a city built on the scale of Indianapolis, high density is required or necessarily even desireable. Moderate densities could do quite nicely. The key is to create neighborhoods with a real urban fabric to them, where there aren’t huge black holes in the streetscape. Unfortunately, a blank wall on Virginia Ave. is probably what the Villagio is going to end up being.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Indianapolis

11 Responses to “Project Reviews: 757 Mass Ave. and the Villagio in Indianapolis, Part Two”

  1. Kevin says:

    I agree with pretty much everything here. That parking garage is an atrocity. I was worried about that building the first time I saw construction on it. It seems quite out of place. Looks like the developer just wanted to make money instead of adding to the neighborhood.

  2. CorrND says:

    That garage is an atrocity. One of the things that’s particularly irritating about it is that it’s already set back from the sidewalk several feet. Set it back a little bit more and they could have put a row of little shops in front of the garage. Simply add a level to the garage and they could have put a restaurant in the bottom level.

    Hell, they could have built the garage to the height of the main building and it wouldn’t have mattered much, given their terrible use of that side of the building — looks like there are a grand total of 16 windows.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I take my wife to work at the Farm Bureau Building on East Street every day and pick her up every day. On the way, I pass the old Cole Automobile factory (now a jail) and look straight at the Villagio.
    To tell you the truth, I think I like the way the outside of the Cole jail the best.
    Honestly, I’ve seen public housing projects from the 1960’s and 70’s that look more tastefull than this Villagio. If curb appeal were a selling point I wouldn’t look but once this ugly building and drive on.
    Hell, there are nicer looking housing tenements in the old Soviet Union!
    I’m sorry but this Villagio looks cheap, is built cheap, and should easily qualify for Section 8 housing in the next 10 to 15 years.
    I’m not sure UGLY is harsh enough in describing how this place looks.

  4. ablerock says:

    I ride my bike past this building all the time. What a wasted opportunity. It hurts to look at it. The developer skimped on materials everywhere possible. It looks like it was made from a Home Depot kit.

    Building the first two stories to the point would’ve have been a simple solution. They could’ve had rooftop dining.

    I just can’t believe the developer actually called The Villagio his “gift to Fountain Square.”

    My only hope is that someone will develop the BMV lot and cover up the ass of this building.

  5. CorrND says:

    One point about the brick: it’s also the wall material for the porch/balcony areas. The upper floors — presumably the most expensive — get the shaft in that their balcony walls are made of the cheapo-looking stucco crap instead of nice brick.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The Farm Bureau building was the catalyst for this area. Look at the exterior of the FB building and the exterior of Villagio. Villagio is NOT a benefit to that area. A prime location for a real looker of project and all we have is a bad example of a Motel 8.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

  8. SOS says:

    The planners got put in their place when they tried to suggest design changes and had to back off, as usual.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Architecture and urban planning in Indianapolis are a complete joke. This project is the epitome of that.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Would Villagio look better if they just painted the stucco something like Tiggerific Orange.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Yes, the developer thinks he has given a “gift” but in reality he has received one in the form of silent acceptance from the City and from Fletcher Place residents. They should have fought this tooth and nail, but instead rolled over and let them build this atrocity. There are too many reasons why this building is an utter failure, and a slap in the face of the surrounding neighborhoods. The marketing tries to justify the price, but the truth is that it is a pile of crap being sold to tasteless suburbanites. Go inside and see the model, and you’ll see that the pedestrian design of the exterior carries through to the inside.

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