Experts are optimistic that the planned redevelopment of the Diamond Chain property into a football stadium and commercial project will spur growth in the residential and entertainment sectors in the southwest downtown area.
But environmental and historical factors of what is now—and has been for more than 100 years—a commercial property must also be considered in Eleven Park’s aggressive development schedule.
Indianapolis-based Keystone Corp.’s project is slated to begin as soon as next spring after Diamond Chain’s final closure, with work on the stadium portion of the project being completed in time for Indy Eleven’s home opener in spring 2025. The cost of the project is likely to be as high as $1 billion – including $250 million for the stadium itself, which is expected to be largely publicly funded.
“It’s without a doubt a very aggressive schedule,” said Larry Gigerich, executive managing director of Fishers-based site selection firm Ginovus LLC. “They don’t have… perfect conditions here, if we’re talking about terrain like this; They will probably have some environmental issues to solve.”
The uncertainty about the environmental status of the property is due in part to the Diamond Chain land having a history as old as Indianapolis itself, albeit through a handful of uses.
A portion of the site was the city’s first burial ground beginning in 1821, with that land being named Greenlawn Cemetery in 1860, according to records from the Indiana Historical Society and research by DeeDee Davis, a digital grant services specialist at IUPUI’s Herron Art Library.
The cemetery, which eventually covered most of the nearly 18-acre site, included an area reserved for Confederate soldiers who died at the Indianapolis POW camp, with a memorial erected in 1909 honoring those soldiers. (It was later moved to Garfield Park.)
While most Greenlawn graves were moved to Crown Hill and Holy Cross cemeteries in the early 20th century, not all made it until the site was sold in 1914 for redevelopment – first as a ballpark for the league’s short-lived Indianapolis Hoosiers and three years later as a still existing manufactory.
The remains of the Confederate soldiers were moved in 1931 when a Crown Hill property was dedicated for the purpose.
But records from other remaining graves had slipped through the cracks. In fact, several tombs have been uncovered at the site over the years, often during expansion or remodeling by Diamond Chain, whose predecessor took over the site in 1917. The most recent discovery was in 1999 when two graves were excavated as part of an effort to house new machinery by lowering part of the site’s floor.
“The location itself is a bit complicated,” said Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving historic buildings across the state. “Most of the remains have been moved to Crown Hill, but some remains of the cemetery remain.”
Susan Sutton, director of access and conservation at the Indiana Historical Society, said she’s never heard anyone raise concerns that demolishing the Diamond Chain will result in a loss of city history. In fact, the Company oversees the preservation of the Company’s historical records; They were donated to the non-profit organization in 2011.
She said there are concerns some remains are still buried beneath the property, but said that’s probably not a reason to halt the cleanup altogether. Additionally, she added, the project might be a step in the right direction to keep people active in downtown corridors.
“There are people who think there are still some grave sites that they missed when they moved the graves from there, so I think that can always be a bit of a difficult situation for some people,” she said . The project “fits into the general way [in which] There’s a lot going on in this area of town – they’re preserving a lot of things that will be attractive to people, all within walking distance, which says a lot in car-loving Indiana.”
When Indy Eleven and Keystone Corp. owner Ersal Özdemir bought the property in 2021, his firm did not have an opportunity to conduct extensive research and due diligence on the property — a common practice in commercial real estate transactions — because the seller wanted to relocate quickly on the transaction.
Despite this, Özdemir said he has already considered local challenges because he takes this into account for every project.
“Downtown is tough — I’ve never done a new development that didn’t have some environmental or site conditions” that needed to be addressed, he said. “This stuff is there all the time, and that adds another layer … and increases the cost.”
The developer is required to submit city-certified plans for the property to the State Department of Natural Resources as the project involves the rehabilitation of a former cemetery site.
Özdemir said that the project’s advisory team, including stadium architect Populous, indicated that two years was a “reasonable timeframe” for the football facility to be completed.
Davis said he also contacted Ozdemir to offer Indiana Landmarks help from a heritage preservation perspective.
“If conservation is a component of this project, Indiana Landmarks would be a willing resource,” he said. “There are many good precedents for the redevelopment of industrial sites into attractive facilities. If this is possible at this location I think it would be a wonderful development and could add to the appeal. The potential is there.”
I’m looking forward to
However, the existing structure is not expected to remain intact. It is scheduled to be demolished to make way for offices, apartments, parking garages and a 20,000-seat stadium, as well as retail and public space.
No one expects much – if any – opposition from the city over the demolition. The site is not classified as historically significant by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission or the National Register of Historic Places. Rather, it is similar to other industrial sites on the south side that have morphed over the years into either new residential housing or sports or entertainment venues.
“I wouldn’t expect a new development to have to go back and recreate that history because it’s already lost,” said Doug Noonan, professor of public and environmental policy at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. “I do not understand [historical significance] probably flow into something.”
This does not mean that these considerations are not made. Özdemir said there are plans to include the site’s history in the new project.
“We plan to collect memorabilia that we can access and include and define as much history as possible [the] It’s the best way to incorporate that into the project,” he said, noting that Indy Eleven itself is a nod to the city and state’s history with the 11th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers fighting for the Union in the Civil War have fought.
Noonan said the site will almost certainly require redevelopment work before construction can begin – something standard for most industrial site redevelopments.
“The environmental factor is … the piece I would be more concerned about than any historical preservation,” he said. “…Because these things, when they occur — and they’re pretty common on downtown lots — tend to add either a lot of dollars or a lot of months to a project.”
Joel Markland, president of Indianapolis-based BCA Environmental Consultants LLC, said state records show no record of a thorough environmental assessment of the site, but the Eleven Park project will certainly require one before construction begins.
“When it comes to the transfer of ownership, I assume that there has already been or will be an environmental survey,” he said. “…This is a wasteland – it’s an underutilized industrial facility – and with that comes other problems.
“They don’t put industrial plants in nice neighborhoods, at least they didn’t used to. So you can solve an environmental justice challenge by rehabilitating a property like this and opening up new opportunities for a community that they wouldn’t have.”
Depending on the size of the property and the scope of the work, the rehabilitation of an industrial property can take months or years. For example, it took about 18 months to rehabilitate the former General Motors stamping plant on the west bank of the White River across from the Diamond Chain site.
This work was led by the Michigan-based Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust, formed in 2011 as part of a GM bankruptcy settlement. RACER Trust is responsible for rehabilitating dozens of former GM properties and preparing them for redevelopment.
Just this week, RACER announced that it would begin a four-month refurbishment of the former GM-Delco plant in Kokomo.
Bruce Rasher, the organization’s development manager, said he doesn’t think the Diamond Chain site, which was formerly a cemetery, will play a significant role in the rehabilitation process.
“I don’t think the relocation of burial remains will be a significant environmental issue, but it is required by law,” he said, adding that archaeological and cultural issues related to the burial site may also play a role in some jurisdictions.
However, when graves are uncovered, city ordinances require all work to stop until it can be relocated and the rest of the work area inspected.
Keystone officials say they are prepared, with Ozdemir noting that tests have already been conducted on part of the site without any graves being uncovered. “If we do it [uncover any]we will follow all proper procedures for the move,” Özdemir said.
Instead, the focus should be on groundwater and soil contamination, which is prevalent at former industrial sites.
Rasher noted that brownfield regeneration generally follows general patterns.
Some of those components, he said, are steps that Keystone has already taken or is taking, such as:
He said the most expensive and time-consuming parts of such redevelopments come after, through demolition and redevelopment work, followed by completing project financing and working with the community to determine the best use for the property.
“These costs add up and have to be funded in some way — usually the government fills that gap,” Rasher said. “From a societal perspective, we’re better off reusing existing” industrial sites like the Diamond Chain properties.•