Indianapolis Building First Empty-Ballpark Apartments

Communities struggle with what to do with stadiums once sports teams leave. Indianapolis is converting its historic minor league ballpark into apartments.
by | April 1, 2013
 

Some baseball fans like the sport so much they buy season tickets. But sports junkies in Indianapolis may be able to take their passion even further: Starting this summer, they’ll be able to live in a stadium.

In August, workers will complete the process of converting the historic minor league ballpark in Indianapolis into a high-end, 138-unit apartment complex dubbed Stadium Lofts. It's believed to be the country’s first housing development located in a former ballpark.

While the change seems dramatic, the Indianapolis developer behind the project says the art-deco exterior of the building will remain largely unchanged. “From the outside, you’d hardly be able to tell the difference from the old stadium,” says Michael Cox, a developer with Core Redevelopment.

Bush Stadium, the long-time home of the minor league Indianapolis Indians, opened in 1931. But the team moved to a new stadium in 1996. Since then, it’s been largely empty. For a time, it was used a track for midget car racing. At one point it was used as a parking lot for cars in the Cash for Clunkers program.

Bush Stadium -- like many professional sports venues across the country -- posed a problem for the community: What do you do with a stadium when a team leaves? (That topic was the subject of a 2011 Governing feature). Baseball stadiums are purpose-built, so they don't offer easy solutions for re-use. Yet they have sentimental and historic value that make demolition a sensitive topic.

Bush Stadium found its savior in John Watson, the principal of Core Redevelopment -- which specializes in reusing historic buildings.

Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit that works to preserve and rehabilitate historic properties, had previously included the stadium on its list of endangered buildings. Marsh Davis, president of the nonprofit, joined Watson in pitching the city on the project, which ultimately contributed funding to the undertaking.

Cox calls the project a “three-dimensional puzzle.” About 85 percent of the building’s volume was torn out, so essentially a new structure was created in the shape of a stadium while maintaining the original wall. “Our company motto is, don’t fight the building,” Cox says.

The developers did retain some especially intriguing parts of the facility. The former owner’s office – complete with a fireplace and restored hardwood floors – is being incorporated into a one of the apartments.  The baseball diamond – once made of dirt – will be made of colored concrete and surrounded by grass. “If you’re in a unit looking down,” Cox says, “it still looks like a baseball field.” The effect makes the the apartments feel like luxury boxes.

Despite the high-profile status of the project, rents aren’t particularly expensive: a large 1,600 square-foot studio goes for around $1,300 per month, and a smaller 580 square-foot, one-bedroom costs about $599 (the company’s already leased 35 units).

Davis says there was a risk that the stadium would be demolished, given that the area was poised for development and years had gone by without a viable method of re-use being identified.

“There are purists who would like to see it remain as a ballpark,” Davis says. “The city studied it every which way. There was no economically feasible way. There were no takers. So the alternative is: Do you scrap it, do you save a token wall, or do you do something creative?”

The project cost around $13 million, with the city picking up $3.5 million of the tab. Those funds were generated by the city's downtown tax increment financing district, though the stadium falls outside its boundaries. Another $1.8 million for the project came from the state.

Deron Kintner, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, says the Stadium Lofts complex is part of a larger effort the city has taken to redevelop the area as a hub for the life sciences industry, given its proximity to a university, a medical school, and hospitals. The city kicked in its funding since leaders thought it was important to preserve the historic building and believes Stadium Lofts would help bring momentum to the development of the community.

Kintner and Davis both say there are few ways to reuse a stadium, so Core's plan was much-appreciated.  “[I] think John’s a master at preserving old buildings," Davis says. "If he can save the sense of the place – which I know he’s trying to do – that’s a commendable thing.”

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