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Architect notes public’s input on proposed uses for downtown site

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An architect seeking ideas for the future of the vacant Sears property accepted feedback Thursday — one sticky note at a time.

About 50 area residents stopped in during an open house at the Indiana University Center for Art + Design Columbus building.

There were opportunities to offer ideas or learn more about what future uses Carmel-based architect Glenn Gareis has in mind for the site.

Gareis was hired by the Columbus Capital Foundation, owner of the Sears site, to develop options for the property on the edge of downtown Columbus off Third and Brown streets.

Walls and tables were covered with informational and background data-covered posters describing what the Sears site could be. There was information about previous studies about the site and how the area surrounding the building could influence the project.

Sears had operated at the site since 1973, but closed March 9 due to poor sales performance.

The 62,800-square-foot retail store and former 10,000-square-foot auto center are now vacant, with the property including 3.5 acres of paved parking just west of the retail building.

The foundation will have control of the building Tuesday, when the Sears lease expires.

For those who weren’t sure what they thought about the property’s potential, Gareis offered questions to jump-start creative thinking.

Posting answers with sticky notes, visitors were asked to list three things missing in downtown Columbus, and what would complement recent Fourth Street area projects, among other questions.

Residents were asked their thoughts on the different proposed uses as well.

“I just want people to have a chance to look at the information that was there and use their own words to write down what they think,” Gareis said. “By using sticky notes, it gives everyone a chance to say something. It provides a more flexible input process.”

Some of the potential uses Gareis presented included:

Building an arts center that could host live entertainment.

Expanding the Indiana University Center for Art + Design Columbus.

Bringing in a new college entirely.

Adding more downtown housing.

Building a new hotel and conference complex.

Building new office space.

Providing more downtown parking on the site also was mentioned.

Those options came from public officials and community leaders, some public input and his own professional opinion, Gareis said.

Some sticky-note comments indicated the site should be turned into a multipurpose arts center while others thought the site should become a conference center with more hotel space.

Some liked the idea of the IUCA+D expansion, but took it a step further, suggesting adding student studio and living space.

Laurie Booher said she’s hoping to see new arts and sports venues in the Columbus area. She doesn’t think a retail store can survive in the area, however.

“I’m just a concerned citizen. I think there’s space available for everything in our community,” she said. “I was just trying to see what we were up to, what we were thinking, what our thoughts were here.”

Rick White suggested the site be used for a new County Annex building, replacing an aging structure with significant defects.

Tony Costello with the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives couldn’t fit all his ideas on a sticky note. Those ideas included possibly making the Sears building a new home for the city’s archives, which are now housed in the Bartholomew County Public Library.

“We have an interest in all of the arts and culture activities going on in the city. We are in the process of beginning discussions on a facility for the archives, in other words, moving out of the lower level of the library because it would be more public,” he said.

“This came at kind of an opportune time because we would love to be on the town tour, so to speak, where people could come by and we could share what we have in the collection with them,” Costello said.

Costello said he’s a great believer in citizen empowerment and the idea of soliciting input from the community as to what residents feel.

“This is a great process. I’ve done a lot of these and you really need to provide this kind of information,” he said.

If an archive building would not call the Sears site home, Costello said he would like to see conference space and more hotel rooms for outside visitors.

“Having organized architects’ conferences here, I actually think that a small, flexible conference center would really add to the attractiveness of this community,” he said. “I can’t think of a city that would be a nicer place to come for a weekend conference.”

Not everyone was a fan of the sticky-note feedback format, however.

Local resident William Scarbrough felt it was not an appropriate way to generate a fair conversation with the Columbus community.

“I was there at 4:15 p.m. and asked who I should talk to, to have the opportunity to speak to this issue. I was told there would not be such an opportunity, but I could write a comment on paper that hung on the wall,” he said.

“This project is the first in decades that has the potential of returning Columbus to the days of the ’60s and ’70s in which distinguished architecture made a small town in Indiana known throughout the country. Architecture is not the key today. This is an opportunity to address the most serious problem facing us as a nation and in a way that again a small town can become unique,” he said. “The way the public input was done at the session denies any way to discern if this is a pie-in-the-sky or feasible approach.”

Scarbrough does not believe a convention center or a theater is a viable use of the property, and the proposals “say nothing about the pride of Columbus,” he said.

Gareis is compiling the feedback from Thursday’s open house, including the sticky notes, to be included in a study for the foundation expected in May. Two focus groups will offer more feedback and community leaders will be asked to give opinions before his conclusions are presented, he said.

Gareis said he was really only scratching the surface toward a goal that will help Columbus and the foundation find a use for the site that’s missing from the downtown now.

“This is the start of giving the community the information so they can decide if they support things or not,” Gareis said.

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