For decades, Augusta Heights hasn’t changed much.
The neighborhood, tucked in between where Michigan Road and W 79th St meet Crooked Creek, is secluded, peaceful. Residents describe it as “the country in the middle of the city.”
In many ways, it is. Residents don’t have sewage, streetlights or sidewalks. Fire trucks have had trouble making their way through the narrow, un-maintained streets. Backyards flood every spring.
But for the first time in years, change is coming to Augusta Heights. Developers are moving in and building new homes. They’re bringing street lights, sidewalks, sewer systems, and new roads.
86% of forest land in Marion Co. at risk:Indianapolis has few urban forests left — but many are privately owned and could be lost to development
They’re also cutting down trees — 18 acres of previously untouched woodland — to do so.
“We’ve enjoyed 58 years of nice, wooded seclusion,” said Sandy Keevil, who grew up in Augusta Heights and whose mother still lives there. “We don’t want that to go away. And we don’t want to see trees and woods torn down.”
The scene in Augusta Heights reflects one playing across the entire city of Indianapolis, as the city grows and progress moves outward. The majority of large urban forests in Indianapolis are privately owned, often putting them in the hands of the city’s development commission.
Indianapolis’ urban trees play a vital role in mitigating flooding, heat and pollution and are estimated to save the city millions of dollars each year. With this in mind, the city’s sustainability plan has outlined a goal for increasing urban tree cover in the city, especially in socially vulnerable neighborhoods that often suffer from heat and flooding the most.
But development in Indianapolis is encroaching on the city’s environmentally sensitive areas, resulting in losses of dozens of acres of these urban forests. And despite the financial boost and physical advantages brought by some of these developments, it’s difficult for residents to see the natural resources they’ve long appreciated disappear.
“It will completely change the nature of the community,” said Greg Bright, who lives in a different neighborhood in Wayne Township, across the street from dozens of acres of woodland soon to be developed into a 900,000 square feet mixed use project. “All of us out here moved to enjoy the setting, not be packed up on top of each other. And we’re kind of losing that.”
‘Waiting for the next ball to drop’
Residents of Augusta Heights have been concerned about the construction coming into their neighborhoods ever since it was approved last year. Their worries are based partly on the impact the work will have on their water and wildlife.
The neighborhood is in an area considered socially vulnerable by the city, based on income level and social factors such as age and the number of residents with disabilities.
It’s also a valuable tract of forest. In an unreleased report from the Indiana Forest Alliance obtained by IndyStar, the Augusta Heights area is listed as the 43rd most important urban forest in Marion County, out of thousands.
Cicadas:10 hot spots to see cicadas around Indiana
Residents say the little corner off of Michigan road has always been quiet. For decades, little to no change has come to the area. Many of the residents have lived in the neighborhood for upwards of 30 years. They watch birds, deer and other wildlife from their back windows.
Carol Mullins, who runs Crooked Creek Indy, an organization focused on advocating for the creek’s health, has played a key role in communicating with developers the environmental significance of the forest for both people and animals. Mullins lives near Augusta Heights, and said that since workers started clearing the neighborhood she’s seen more wildlife in her area — a result, she thinks, from conthe loss of habitat from construction.
“They’re gone now,” Mullins said. “It breaks my heart as an environmentalist to see that and to know that wildlife was displaced.”
The plot is also a riparian corridor along Crooked Creek, which makes it of even more concern for Mullins. Others point out that water drainage has always been a problem in the neighborhood, and question whether construction will exacerbate that.
Some residents, too, are skittish about whether the project will be completed at all. In the past, the land has been passed from owner to owner, many of whom promised to make improvements but never followed through.
Developers said they understand these concerns, but fully plan to follow through on promises to residents, which include bringing in improvements such as sewage systems and sidewalks. But not all residents are convinced.
Keevil, whose mother’s house is currently surrounded by cleared land, is worried about what that means for her property.
“We’re just waiting for the next ball to drop,” Keevil said. “And we’re afraid. What if they get in there and start tearing, making a mess … and then they find out they can’t go any further because it’s too costly?”
Tension surrounding the incoming project reached a boiling point in February.
Neighbors complained about large trucks blocking their roads, construction crews using their backyards as bathrooms and heated words between workers and residents. One resident laid down behind a reversing semi truck. The police were called and five officers responded. Rumors — and distrust — circulated.
“It is out of control,” said Chayah Traphagan, whose husband laid behind the semi truck and who says the driver didn’t stop backing up even after seeing her husband there. Developers say the driver didn’t see him, and that the truck stopped.
Afterward, Developers held a neighborhood meeting and have made promises to address residents’ concerns. But even so, those who live there have lingering fears.
“I grew up in the country three hours to the north of here,” said Brad Cross, who moved to Augusta Heights because of the seclusion. “And that’s why I moved to this neighborhood for the simple fact that I get all this nature. … And I want to keep it that way.”
Wetlands:Amended Indiana bill puts more wetlands on the chopping block
Greg Bright’s neighborhood off of Rockville Road, next to the site of the soon-to-be Tremont Town Center, shares similar qualities. Currently dominated by woodlands, the areas is home to wildlife and nature. The incoming development, residents fear, will end that.
When the project was first brought before the city’s Metropolitan Development Commission last year, more than 200 residents in the area signed a petition against it. The roads surrounding the project site are still dotted with opposition signs.
The worry, Bright said, is that it will completely change the nature of the community.
“It’ll be a big change from what it is now,” he said, “which is a kind of more rural feel.”
Environmentalists have an interest in the area as well. Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said he’s concerned the development would destroy the woodlands and affect the stream corridor that runs off of them. It would also take away what little green space remains in Wayne Township.
“We want to see local elected and local civic leaders proactively seek the preservation of places like the Tremont area as nature preserves or new additions to our city parks — which will ultimately benefit the health, quality of life, and property values of the surrounding community,” he said.
All of these concerns were evaluated before the city’s planning commission, which submits recommendations to the development commission on whether or not a project should move forward. And the planning commission suggested a denial, voicing concern about lack of attention to heritage trees in the project and recommending a tree preservation plan in their report.
But the development commission approved the project anyway.
Bright said he was expecting the lot to be protected when he saw the planning decision results. Instead, he was disappointed.
“If you’re going to approve something that the planning staff has already looked at and denied,” Bright asked, “then why are we hiring and paying planning staff?”
‘Make the green space even more accessible’
Developers such as Sam Patterson, the landowner for the Tremont Town Center project, and Len Grabovsky and Bruce Sklare, who are running the Augusta Heights neighborhood project, aren’t setting out solely to tear down trees. Both have a vision for bettering their communities, and bringing in much-needed improvements or value to their area.
The Tremont Town Center, inspired by an old town square, is designed to allow residents to live, shop and recreate in the same area — a living style touted by environmentalists who say it minimizes land impact and cuts back on emissions from driving when people can walk to fulfill their needs.
Patterson has been assembling the property for more than 30 years now, and points out that Wayne Township has changed substantially in that time. In the last 10 years, he said, the area has lost about a billion dollars in property value.
“When we started this land assemblage 30 years ago Wayne Township teachers were the highest paid teachers in the state,” Patterson said in an email. “It is anticipated that Tremont could generate $300-500 million in economic development … Our complete focus moving forward will be made with following through on the promises we made.”
Invasive species:Bradford pear trees are highly invasive. This is why they aren’t banned in Indiana.
In response to concerns raised by neighbors and environmentalists, Patterson cut down the Tremont project substantially, dropping the size by 50,000 square feet and cutting 350 apartment units.
The new version, which will preserve some green space and a wooded stream, addresses these concerns in a fair compromise, said project architect Steve Alexander. He also says the changes will allow more people to appreciate the patch of woodland, by bringing them even closer to it.
“Our objective with the project is to make that green space even more accessible to more people, and more beneficial to the community,” he said. “Developing greater density in Marion County doesn’t necessarily mean compromising on environmental issues. Actually the opposite of that is that density is the way to be able to afford to preserve more environmental assets and the county green spaces that make the trails worth having.”
Like the streets surrounding the Tremont site, Augusta Heights is set aside from traffic and noise. But as secluded and quiet as Augusta Heights is, it’s also been overlooked, Grabovsky says. He points out that roads in the neighborhood are riddled with potholes, and that residents live without amenities that most other Indianapolis neighborhoods have, such as sidewalks and streetlights.
Grabovsky, whose background is in providing housing for people with disabilities, said he feels he has a responsibility to improve quality of life in the area, not just for incoming residents but also for those who have called the tract home for years.
“There’s a serene element of being kind of by yourself out there,” Grabovsky said, “but there’s also an element of neglect.”
Grabovsky and his partner, Bruce Sklare, envision Augusta Heights will be a neighborhood full of affordable, quality homes. The project fills a dire need for low-cost housing in Indianapolis, they say.
More than a third of Marion County residents experience housing burden, meaning it costs them more than 30% of their income. At the same time the cost of houses are increasing. In the last year, the average home cost grew by almost 10%.
“Right now, we’re in one of the largest housing crises we’ve seen from a standpoint of just supply,” Grabovsky said. “People are stuck where they are … because they can’t afford to move and there is no affordable housing.”
With the added benefits of sewage, streetlights and sidewalks, Grabovsky thinks many of the challenges facing current neighbors, including flooding, will be mitigated. He also said they’re taking every measure to ensure Crooked Creek isn’t affected by the project.
“This is an environmentally sensitive area, we are totally aware of that and we are going to be as careful as we can,” Grabovsky said. “We want to be a good neighbor, and one of our biggest neighbors is Crooked Creek.”
Even so, neighbors aren’t sold on the idea. Most told IndyStar that they would still like to see the project stopped.
Grabovsky said his team is doing what it can to address residents’ concerns and manage disruptions. An access road was built so that trucks wouldn’t block streets anymore and brought in bathrooms for the construction workers. They’re going above and beyond, he said, even planning noisy work around one child’s nap schedule.
“We’ve strengthened our relationships,” Grabovsky said. “Have there been some contentious moments with regards to some people that maybe want more change? Yes. But at the same time, (with) those same people we now have a really good communication going forward.”
Sklare, Grabovsky’s partner on the project, said he thinks a lot of the resistance to the project stems from the fact that Augusta Heights was zoned and platted more than 100 years ago, and hasn’t seen much change in decades. But progress has to come eventually, he said.
“I believe some of these neighbors assumed that when they heard (we were) going to be developing the site, they assumed nothing was going to happen,” Sklare said. “I think there’s always tension … whenever you have change.”
Contact IndyStar reporter London Gibson at 317-419-1912 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @londongibson.
Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.