Monday, October 19, 2009

Empty homes/homeless people.

I love that the next Indianapolis Pecha Kucha will be about a great idea to improve the city. A $10k prize won't go far in implementing a significant change but it could get the ball rolling on a fantastic idea. (If you don't know about Pecha Kucha, google it and then be sure you go to the one coming up in November).

I wish I had pulled together a presentation for P.K. but although I have an idea of what SHOULD happen, I don't have much to offer in the way of making it happen. What I do know is that a lot of smart, aware folks read this blog so I'm pitching my idea into the blogiverse to see if someone else can make headway with it or knows of a place where a municipality or private org is doing something like this.

I'm a neighborhood activist and I think one of the major issues affecting my neighborhood, our city, and the nation is abandoned homes. In my little working class neighborhood in Fountain Square there are about 20 abandoned homes that have been empty and boarded or empty and not boarded for at least as long as the three years I've lived here. Most have broken-out upper-story windows. At least one's been set on fire. There are 5 or 6 empty boarded houses on my two-block street.

My neighborhood is on the direct path to the Liquor Cabinet--the kind of charming, urban liquor store, usually found in poorer neighborhoods, that specializes in 32oz single beers and pints of the hard stuff. I notice on a daily basis a large number of homeless folks who traipse through the neighborhood on their way to or from the Liquor Cabinet and a cheap buzz. I also notice them sleeping under the trees and pissing against the buildings (which is annoying, but since there aren't public restrooms anymore and businesses understandably don't want a lot of homeless folks using their restrooms there aren't many alternatives). And now that Mayor Ballard is aggressively chasing the homeless out of downtown, their numbers on the near Southside have increased exponentially.

So here's my question to the city and to all of us. Why can't we pair up at least a small number of the homeless with some of our abandoned homes? Is it compeletly naive to imagine that we could create a great program that could put individuals or groups of 2 or 3 into abandoned houses that they "rent" or eventually buy with sweat equity? Set parameters that require them to be self-managing within the home with the clear requirement that they must secure, repair, and maintain the home in a reasonable manner in order to remain there. The city could pay for their utilities with the money they collect in those dumb boxes downtown so long as the tenants are living up to their commitments to maintain the home.

I know many of the homeless wouldn't be able to manage this sort of situation. But I bet you that some of them could and that there is, somewhere, a model for this type of program. A careful screening by program management could ensure that the people with the best chance of making it work enter the program, and ideally the households would be self-governing. The men or women within the home would decide the house rules and the penalties for violating them. That might mean that what goes on within the house might not necessarily be what you or I would want to see in our homes, but as long as the group decided that it was ok, and as long as the house is being maintained at least on the exterior, least at a minimal level, then the outside world doesn't get to make the judgement on it.

So, the neighborhood gets one or two abandoned homes filled and cleaned up, which results in lower crime and better home values. And a few people get off the streets, which also results in lower crime and a better life for them.

These people are already living in our neighborhoods and often times living on the down-low in these abandoned houses that they've broken into for a little shelter. So, we wouldn't be creating a problem. We would be addressing some tiny portion of the problem that already exists by providing decent, secure living space to a few of the homeless people already living in our neighborhood.

I know that there are mentally ill homeless and others who may not want or be able to maintain any sort of loose contract such as this would be, and this wouldn't work for them. Maybe it would work for only .05% of the homeless population. And it would take a very well-thought-out plan and follow-up process on the part of case managers, etc. And I'm aware of the concern that neighbors would have and that it would take an education process for those neighbors to give it a try, but I still believe that it could make a big difference in a few people's lives. And it could also make a big difference in a neighborhood full of abandoned, decaying homes.

A few homeless people get off the streets. A few abandoned homes get cleaned up and maybe even purchased through a sweat equity contract.

It could be a win/win situation. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have thought of this. I bet it's happening somewhere. Wouldn't it be cool if Indianapolis gained a reputation as the city that makes homeowners of their homeless? I think so, but I don't know how to make it a reality. So, I'm just putting it out there. That's my Pecha Kucha idea, sans the cool slides and the open bar. I'd love to read some or your ideas about how it might happen.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Holy Adaptive Reuse

For a while now, former architect David Andrichik, who is perhaps better known as current Chatterbox Jazz Club owner, has spoken glowingly of changes to a building I had been feeling sad about. David has turned me on to a lot of good design in the past (as well as several good beers) so I made a point of taking a long look at the Meridian Arch condo project at 802 N. Meridian St. I encourage you to do the same.

A few years ago I was the historian who evaluated all the properties along what will eventually become the Northwest section of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. One of the properties that was so disappointing to me at that time was the former Methodist Church building that is now the front section of the Meridian Arch project. Once a Gothic Beauty all done up in limestone, the church had been gutted, the back end removed, interior stripped, windows gone. It was a shell scheduled for rehabbing into condos. Strike, strike, strike. I was dismayed that the beautiful building would never be listed on the National Register due to all these changes and losses of fabric.

But...two years later I have to admit that I now think it's a better building. Clever adaptive reuse has turned a downtown church building, which would probably never have been reused in its original capacity, into a stunner of a redevelopment project.

Although some preservationists are loathe to express appreciation for keeping a facade intact while adding new buildings behind it, I have always thought that approach is better than completely demolishing a beautiful old building. I'm glad that Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf kept the original church building skin. I especially like how they fit new windows into the original openings, keeping the arched grillwork lintels in place and installing what appear to be operable sashes behind them.

And if ever a lesson could be taught in how to attach a new addition to an existing historic building, this property could be the text. The connection between original limestone and new brick is made elegant by the continuation of a buttressed limestone beltlline across the new section and the quote of the rusticated limestone foundation on the front section translated into the smooth squared block foundation of the newer section. The two buildings meet amicably with a slightly recessed window wall.

The new section of the building honors the old section with these details and with a somewhat whimsical design element that resembles stylized flying buttresses at roofline, and it is similar in color, which also helps the two sections meld well. But this addition is a fully modern building that in no way copies the original structure in front of it. I especially like the walls of windows opening out onto individual porches on the recessed bays. And the elegantly simple facade is made interesting with cool railings and interesting light fixtures.

This building, which seemed like such a sad idea a couple of years ago turned into a real winner. This is adaptive reuse done well. And although the alterations have made the church ineligible for the National Register, they made it eligible to remain a living, contributing building to the city. That was a good trade off.