Monday, July 2nd, 2007
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.