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August 26, 2012

FLASHPOINT: ISU decision on downtown housing location looms large

TERRE HAUTE — It was encouraging to read in the Aug. 14 Tribune-Star that ISU officials are “still studying the site” for Phase One of their downtown student housing project. While the idea of locating 150 student beds on the north side of Wabash Avenue’s 500 block is good, demolishing any of downtown’s surviving historic buildings to make way for these projects is not a step to be taken lightly. There are many sites downtown that could be developed without sacrificing local landmarks, including the western half of the block being studied.

The five buildings threatened with demolition are noteworthy for many reasons. Economically, they represent a node of underutilized potential. Architecturally, their facades are beautiful examples of early 20th Century style. Their location on the National Road, our All-American Scenic Byway, underscores their authenticity. Their simple design allows for relatively easy adaptation into housing, office or retail space. Their sound construction has survived for over a century, and they will likely survive another hundred years if they are repaired and maintained.

If ISU directs their developer Thompson Thrift to demolish these local landmarks, the university will be departing from the historic preservation path it has now been on for over a decade. Under former President Lloyd Benjamin, ISU committed to reinvesting in their former Laboratory School and assuming ownership of the Post Office and Federal Building, both of which were major efforts.

Current ISU President Dan Bradley has laid the groundwork for preserving Normal Hall, which is the oldest surviving school building on campus. President Bradley is also making his own mark on honoring our riverfront industrial heritage by including the former American Can Company factory in ISU’s planned expansion toward the river.

Indeed, President Bradley may be poised to establish ISU solidly as a leading practitioner of historic preservation in Vigo County. The university clearly recognizes the value of gems like our historic Post Office and Federal Building, and I look forward to celebrating the “save” of that landmark with my fellow Hauteans and ISU leaders at its rededication on Sept. 7. The community-wide effort that resulted in ISU’s Scott School of Business locating there involved many people over many years, and it demonstrates how historic buildings can be adaptively reused while retaining their character and place in the community.

ISU’s stated goal of placing up to 600 student beds over retail space downtown in the coming years will have a transformative effect on the neighborhood. There are many downtown sites that could accommodate ISU’s new construction while allowing adjacent historic properties to be adaptively rehabilitated. Simply developing the parking lots along the east side of Fifth Street from Wabash to Cherry would be a win/win for the university and downtown, giving ISU the opportunity to make a future landmark on the block they have chosen, while filling in one of downtown’s most prominent missing teeth.

There is growing demand for downtown housing aimed at all ages and income levels. The adaptive rehabilitation of historic upstairs commercial space into apartments has been a slow but steady driver of our community’s effort to revitalize downtown Terre Haute in recent years, resulting in construction of over 60 units of housing so far.

Adding those to the 100 apartments in Deming Center, the handful of apartments that have always existed, and Center City’s 33 units brings us to about 200 apartments downtown today. All kinds of people want to live downtown, and we need all kinds of housing options for them.

Expanding downtown’s customer base by bringing hundreds of student residents into the neighborhood over the coming years will be a solid step toward a true downtown renaissance, helping create an atmosphere where businesses of all kinds can thrive. The fact that President Bradley and his team are continuing to study just how they will fit Phase 1 of their downtown student housing program into the neighborhood is commendable. Its look, scale, ground floor business mix and impact on parking all need to be carefully considered.

The historic Kaufman Block at Seventh and Wabash, where I live and work, clearly demonstrates the potential of reinvesting in local landmarks. There are over a dozen locally owned businesses in it, along with four upstairs residences housing 10 people. My neighbors and I work together to maintain our corner in a way that presents some of Terre Haute’s best qualities, while allowing each of us to pursue our unique business interests.

Over the decades, we have lost many of the structures that helped give Terre Haute an authentic sense of place. When talking with locals and visitors about our surviving downtown landmarks, I often hear them say “we don’t build ’em like this any more.” In my mind, that’s one of the best reasons to preserve and reuse what we have left. It honors our heritage, underscores our unique local character, and makes good business sense.

ISU’s site study should ultimately reach these same conclusions, resulting in a project we can all support that is truly a step forward for both the university and downtown Terre Haute.


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    March 12, 2010